On the final day of the 2016 Nottingham Festival of Literature I attended an event with Jack Monroe at the Nottingham Playhouse. Jack rose to prominence as a writer, campaigner and austerity food blogger, sharing recipes for those on a limited budget. As a writer, Jack has worked as a columnist, which included a recipe column for the Guardian in addition to writing a selection of cookbooks for low budgets.
A large crowd welcomed Jack to the stage as they began by talking about their journey to the event and the time for reflection on Remembrance Sunday. It was also moving to hear Jack talk about a friend who recently passed away who was an inspiration to them as an activist and campaigner, a woman who worked tirelessly in encouraging people to speak up for themselves and get their voices heard. From this point Jack discussed the reasons for why people are reluctant to speak up; particularly relevant during a year that has seen a great deal of change, uncertainty and fear. Jack points out that in what has been a difficult year people have become de-sensitised to the events that unfold around us. Faced with difficult news stories all of the time people have begun to internalise their thoughts and opinions, possibly unwilling to speak out for the fear of the unknown. It is a time which has signalled a change in the public consciousness.
Jack raised many interesting points in this discussion which then moved on to personal experiences with austerity. This was particularly moving as it included a very personal and harrowing account of life as a single parent and how the everyday things that many take for granted seemed a million miles away to Jack, who was forced to rely on food banks and struggled to keep their toddler son warm and well fed. Jack outlined the harsh realities of life as a single parent compared to how they are often portrayed in the media. I was shocked and saddened by the severity of Jack’s situation, and it certainly made for thought provoking listening. But fortunately for Jack, after 18 months living in poverty, life started to turn around. With a lot of hard work and determination, having spoken out about these issues, writing about these struggles, Jack’s profile began to increase. There were now two aspects to Jack’s life – volunteering at food banks to assist those in a similar situation to the one they had been in and using this profile to raise awareness and campaign for those issues close to heart. But whilst there were many positives to this high profile, Jack did touch on the press scrutiny they faced when in the public eye.
From this point, the audience were invited to ask questions the first of which raised the subject of gender and sexuality. Jack identifies as being non-binary transgender and discussed how this is perceived in the media. An individual identifying as non-binary prefers to be referred to as ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’ and Jack outlined the importance of gender neutral pronouns for an individual as this is their self identification. As a result there are sometimes instances in the media where people are miss-gendered, put into categories, or referred to by a former name. Further questions raised were in relation to campaigning and the best ways to speak up for what you believe in. Jack explained that we all have the right to speak up without fear of facing consequences, whether that may be loss of rights or financial detriment. They emphasised the importance of telling other peoples stories to raise awareness and again I was saddened to hear one of these stories from Jack, an example of a human being living in poverty with no support. This led to perhaps the most powerful message of the event – that you should do small, kind things for other people, and to be selfless. And if everyone went away and carried out an act of kindness, no matter how small or trivial it may seem, someone’s world would be changed, and the world may seem that little bit brighter.
The final questions of the event focused on Jack’s veganism and its impact on working on their third cookbook, in addition to their work on a project in which the stories of people living in austerity will be told. And with a film also released inspired by Jack’s experiences, it is clear to see that they are using their experiences of poverty in a constructive way, to bring the plights of many people to the forefront of our consciousness. This was a moving, inspiring talk which left me with plenty to ponder over.