Radio 4 focuses on Jesmond’s “squeezed middle”
Across the country, they drink fresh coffee as they worry about interest rates going up. In the evening, the drink changes to red wine. They don’t have haircuts, holidays or heating. They are the Squeezed Middle and they abound in Jesmond. The editor of JesmondLocal, Ian Wylie, has done a sterling job helping me find subjects for my documentary Tales from the Squeezed Middle, which I wanted to focus on parts of the country outside London. Having worked and lived in Newcastle myself, I was keen to include the city in the show.
He very kindly put a request up from me for interviewees in the local Oxfam bookshop; I got an email from the manager, Katie Liddle. “I’m sure I’m not the person you want,” wrote Katie. After a brief chat, I was certain she was just the person I wanted. Having taken voluntary redundancy from Northern Rock, Katie estimates her family income with her husband Ronnie has halved.
“We haven’t had a holiday for two years,” she tells me. “The boiler is broken. Before, we would have just gone out and bought one. Now we have to save up for one. We used to spend £100 a week on food. Now we spend £60 a week. Ronnie and I compete to see who can get the weekly bill lowest.”
A tall, red haired woman with a dramatic taste in flamboyant clothes (“they all come from Oxfam”), she used to have a bad taxi habit. That’s gone. She used to buy new boots. She doesn’t now. She has no time for what she sees as the excesses of London. “People are losing their jobs up here. You have people in the City crying because they have lost their Porsche! They say they have slashed their bonuses. Well, I am sorry, but if you are on a salary of £1.5 million, you don’t need a bonus! You don’t! You have a house over your head. You have food on the table. What else is there in life?”
Throw a stone up in County Durham and it will strike one of the squeezed middle coming down, says Caroline Beck, a garden writer living in Weardale. “I am still working, but I can always see the abyss.”
Caroline and I visit some of her friends in Newcastle. We drive in her car which has no lock. This does not matter since it is worth about £100. As there is next to no public transport in Woldingham, it is an essential expense. We meet Suzy, who runs the Hexham Book Festival and Anna, who works at a local literacy development organisation. They are, as they put it, all ‘skint’.
“When we go out, we usually have to decide between the cinema and the restaurant,” says Suzie cheerfully. “Never both.”
“We try not to get too depressed about it,” says Caroline. “The whole point is to buoy each other up.” So they have each other round for meals, or meet to discuss books. This isn’t going to go away fast, this much they know.
“We are in it for the long haul,” announces Anna. “All those benefits we used to enjoy are not going to be reinstated. Swimming pools, child benefits, university grants, cheaper petrol…”
Caroline nods in agreement. “They have gone forever. And the costs will only go up. It turns you into a hideous miser. And its boring. Talking about utility bills, its really boring!”
Everyone laughs. These women are fairly and squarely in the middle. Married, each with children, they have a joint family income of around £50,000. Nobody is saying that they are impoverished, that they can’t afford to put food on the table. There is just nothing to spare.
I found my Newcastle participants smart and sorted; one thing was shared, and that was a frustration that the South in general, and London in particular, seems to have no idea what is going on up here.
“We feel pretty isolated,” says Katie. “When Queen Victoria used to travel through the North East on her way to Balmoral she would get someone to close the curtains on the train so she didn’t have to look out. We feel a bit like that all over again. They should as well build a wall, and have us part of Scotland, for the amount of attention they pay to us up here.”