If William Hazlitt were alive today, he'd be eating 39p Frazzles

It is hard to be without money. To get on without it is like travelling in a foreign country without a passport – you are stopped, suspected, and made ridiculous at every turn, besides being subjected to the most serious inconveniences.

William Hazlitt: secret Frazzles guzzler? Image: Getty


You may have heard the news last week about gas and electricity prices going up at roughly three times the rate of inflation, and wages falling in real terms for the past decade. Nor were they that great to begin with. Tell me about it, I thought to myself, as I lay in ambush by the mousehole behind the cooker, saucepan in hand, waiting for my dinner to emerge.

“It is hard to be without money. To get on without it is like travelling in a foreign country without a passport – you are stopped, suspected, and made ridiculous at every turn, besides being subjected to the most serious inconveniences.” That’s William Hazlitt in 1827. It could have been me, six days ago. Before that, I had checked my bank balance and been interested to note that I had £1.27 in my current account to last me until the next payday, which was then 16 days away.

Hmm, that’s a little earlier than usual, I said to myself, referring to that point in the month at which you run out of money. That I was actually owed about £900 over my usual monthly rate – thanks to extra-hard work – cut no ice with the bank, which refused to extend my overdraft. (The manager himself was very apologetic and, indeed, surprised about this, but the decision was out of his hands; apparently all is now decided by computerised algorithm at a central location. What’s the purpose of a bank manager now, I wonder.)

The annoying thing is that after last month’s scare I had become quite frugal, to the point where I now confine my occasional elevenses snack to a packet of Frazzles, who are going through a very welcome phase of printing the price (39p) on the packet and thus discouraging the corner shop from making its usual outrageous mark-up. I could of course go without tobacco (there’s an extraordinary range of prices of Cutters Choice rolling tobacco, from something like £6 in the centre of town to £3.80 in Shepherd’s Bush), or wine, but I calculated that even if going without the latter would leave me more or less in pocket by the end of the month, it wouldn’t make me that much wealthier – and, besides, what is the point of life without wine?

Here’s some more Hazlitt. I quote him at some length because he’s so good. “The want of money I here allude to is not altogether that which arises from absolute poverty . . . but that uncertain, casual, precarious mode of existence . . . the intermediate state of difficulty and suspense between the last guinea or shilling and the next that we may have the good luck to encounter. This gap . . . is really full of many anxieties, misgivings, mortifications, meannesses, and deplorable embarrassments of every description.”

His essay “On the Want of Money”, he went on to say, “is not a fanciful speculation”, and it is some consolation that I am in his company, in this area at least. I was brooding on this because I was off, with my last tenner, to the pub to meet someone who wanted to talk books with me but who also had brought over a couple of packs of filterless Lucky Strike (which you can’t get in this country). Last time I checked, these cost about eight bucks each, and I was worried about how I was going to pay for them. Talk about deplorable embarrassments.

Another one comes when it becomes too painful to check your bank balance. People say it is important to keep an eye on your finances but when each time you do so you feel a pang of anxiety so sharp it may as well be physical, is it any wonder that there is a reluctance not only to be spurned in public by the cash machine but also, in private, to have one’s computer screen tell you a bald, unwelcome truth? In the end, out of that sense where hope and despair are pretty much the same thing, I checked my balance online and found that some saint had paid me £300 of the £900 I was owed. I’m not sure how placed you are to appreciate this, although I have a suspicion that if this column were appearing in the Spectator, there would be a few baffled letters the following week asking why I didn’t just let the under-footman go, but I haven’t had such a fillip for ages.

So tonight I am going to celebrate by getting a takeaway from the Romna Curry House on Seymour Place, which cooks the best curry I’ve ever had despite being a frighteningly underpopulated restaurant. I strongly recommend their food – and I, for one, am getting fed up with eating mice.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: will women bear the brunt again?

Time and time again, the Chancellor has chosen to balance the books on the backs of women. There's still hope for a better way. 

Today, the Chancellor, George Osborne, presents his Autumn Statement to parliament. Attention will be focused on how he tries to dig himself out of the tax credits hole that he got himself into with his hubristic summer budget.

He’s got options, both in terms of the sweeteners he can offer, and in how he finds the funds to pay for them. But what we will be looking for is a wholesale rethink from the chancellor that acknowledges something he’s shown total indifference to so far: the gender impact of his policy choices, which have hurt not helped women.

In every single budget and autumn statement under this Chancellor, it has been women that have lost out. From his very first so-called “emergency  budget” in 2010, when Yvette Cooper pointed out that women had been hit twice as hard as men, to his post-election budget this summer, the cumulative effects of his policy announcements are that women have borne a staggering 85 per cent of cuts to tax credits and benefits. Working mums in particular have taken much of the pain.

We don’t think this is an accident. It reflects the old-fashioned Tory world view, where dad goes out to work to provide for the family, and mum looks after the kids, while supplementing the family income with some modest part-time work of her own. The fact that most families don’t live like that is overlooked: it doesn’t fit the narrative. But it’s led to a set of policies that are exceptionally damaging for gender equality.

Take the married couple’s tax break – 80 per cent of the benefit of that goes to men. The universal credit, designed in such a way that it actively disincentivises second earners – usually the woman in the family. Cuts and freezes to benefits for children - the child tax credit two-child policy, cuts to child benefit – are cuts in benefits mostly paid to women. Cuts to working tax credit have hit lone parents particularly hard, the vast majority of whom are women.

None of these cuts has been adequately compensated by the increase in the personal tax threshold (many low paid women are below the threshold already), the extension of free childcare (coming in long after the cuts take effect) or the introduction of the so-called national living wage. Indeed, the IFS has said it’s ‘arithmetically impossible’ that they can do so. And at the same time, women’s work remains poorly remunerated, concentrated in low-pay sectors, more often part time, and increasingly unstable.

This is putting terrible pressure on women and families now, but it will also have long-term impact. We are proud that Labour lifted one million children out of poverty between 1997 and 2010. But under the Tories, child poverty has flat-lined in relative terms since 2011/12, while, shockingly, absolute child poverty has risen by 500,000, reflecting the damage that has been by the tax and benefits changes, especially to working families. Today, two thirds of children growing up poor do so in a working family. The cost to those children, the long-term scarring effect on them of growing up poor, and the long-term damage to our society, will be laid at the door of this chancellor.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, low-earning women who are financially stretched won’t have anything left over to save for their pension. More are falling out of auto-enrolment and face a bleak old age in poverty.

Now that the Chancellor has put his calculator away, we will discover when he has considered both about the impact and the consequences of his policies for women. But we have no great hopes he’ll do so. After all, this is the government that scrapped the equality impact assessments, saying they were simply a matter of ‘common sense’ – common sense that appears to elude the chancellor. In their place, we have a flaky ‘family test’ – but with women, mothers and children the big losers so far, there’s no sign he’s going to pass that one either.

That’s why we are putting the Chancellor on notice: we, like women across the country, will be listening very carefully to what you announce today, and will judge it by whether you are hurting not helping Britain’s families. The Prime Minister’s claims that he cares about equality are going to sound very hollow if it’s women who take the pain yet again.