It’s Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and on the radio the Revd Lucy Winkett reminds me I need to decide what to give up to God for the next 40 days.
It used to be that people gave up eating. Largely because there wasn’t anything much around to eat at this time of year. But if Christ could spend 40 days in the wilderness without benefit of a tent, a primus stove and a crate of lager, and be back in time for Easter, the highest and the humblest among us could manage it too.
Nowadays, according to the gospel of the Blessed Lucy, it’s okay to give up tweeting, or texting your mates, or listening to the Today programme. Whatevs, bruvs, it’s the 21st century, Lent-lite, rite? In which case, I might give up carrying a phone around so I don’t have to talk to EE about the wonderful savings I can make on my mobile contract. But friends, colleagues and loved ones have both noted that I tend to leave my phone in the wrong trousers most of the time, so it wouldn’t be such a sacrifice.
So much consumer choice to not consume. So where does that leave me, Lentwise? Well, I don’t have a job to give up, don’t tweet, can’t text, no mates, but I was pleased to receive a letter from the Ministry of Pork and Beans this morning, informing me through gritted teeth that, as of 08 April, my pension is going up by £3 a week. Almost an entire glassful of Merlot! Should I write and say, hold it, guys – I’m giving the three quid up for Lent?
With the letter came one of their curiously downbeat little leaflets, three shades of grey, solemnly informing me that they might have to clawback tax from the money they are kindly giving me. It does seem a little bizarre, to hand someone ten thousand a year from public funds and then have to grab some of it back, when they could just hand you the right amount in the first place.
Then, in that curious sing-song-hopalong pidgin the government has adopted as standard (it doesn’t quite count as ‘plain English’ because, in order for language to communicate clearly, it is not the dogged simplicity with which you construct the sentence, but the need to convey some actual meaning through it, that counts), I am warned I may be fined £50 ‘civil penalty’ if I do not tell the Ministry straight away of any change in my circumstances.
I wonder, should I tell them I have a bit of a chesty cough this morning? Or that I have run out of bread for my toast? That the weather here in Boglington has turned overcast? I’m out walking the dog? What do they need to know, and why?
There follows a list of helpful suggestions of things that might be construed as a change in my circumstances; for instance, ‘if your Child Benefit award ends or changes’. I’m 65, for God’s sake! It’s how you get a pension. My kids are older than I am!
…’if a qualifying young person marries or forms a civil partnership’. What earthly relevance this has to my circumstances is not gone into. Qualifying for what? What young person? I have no young persons about my person. I’m not a young person, whatever ‘young’ means in this context. This is the Old Age Pension, not given to young persons as far as I am aware. Is 65 the new young?
Or, for instance, if I ‘go into hospital’, I must inform them immediately ‘on entering and on leaving’. What, ‘hi, I’m just popping in to get my toenails cut. Okay, now I’m back on the train…’ For day surgery, or overnight? Does waiting four hours for the triage nurse in A&E count? Am I obliged to inform the Government immediately of the change in my circumstances if I’ve been hit by a truck and admitted to ICU in a persistent vegetative state?
Why does ‘going into hospital’ affect my pension rights at all? Do they stop your pension to compensate the NHS for the soggy chicken and lettuce sandwich and a cup of lukewarm tea at lunchtime? Would that not conflict somewhat with the notion of a health service free to all at the point of delivery? Or do they increase the pension while you are in, bung you a bit extra out of sympathy? We are not told.
After a page of this, the dimwitted Young Apprentice-scheme bureau-basher who has been tasked with concocting this list of shame gives up in despair. Having run out of petty reasons to bilk you of your pension, he throws the problem back onto you: ‘This list is not exhaustive. You must tell us about changes in your circumstances straight away.‘
The underlying vacuousness of the advice consists in failing at any point to determine what is the default set of circumstances from which any change must be notified. ‘Yes, hi, how are you doing today? I made toast again for breakfast but I’ve eaten it now. Hunzi had some too.’ But I certainly won’t be giving up my pension for Lent!
As well, the government has been reacting today to a report that says many hardworking people are being ripped-off by the Big 6 energy companies, because we are loyal customers who don’t switch suppliers often enough (Conservatives are not big on loyalty).
I am being ripped-off by my energy supplier, of course. They’re blackmailing me. They told me they had ‘forgotten’ to bill me for my gas, on a fixed tariff that was supposed to provide both gas and electricity, for three years. I now owed them £1039, but if I agreed to sign up for another two-year fixed contract at twice the previous price, they would reduce the debt to £240. (The figures were made-up, plucked from the air. They bore no relation to my actual energy usage.)
So the reason I don’t switch is because EDF have this gun to my head. But I would not switch my energy supplier in any case. Why would I? I don’t understand what I am paying for, how anything is calculated. I don’t understand how, when you have a fixed tariff, they send you bills for twice the agreed amount and then owe you a refund you never get. I don’t understand why EDF keeps texting and emailing to tell me I can get my energy £50 cheaper elsewhere. I don’t understand how anyone can say how much I might or might not save by switching, when they haven’t a clue whether my central heating is permanently on or off, how often I fry chips for supper.
It could be my age, but I don’t seem to understand anything anymore. I don’t even want to understand. It’s all absurd: overcomplicated, arbitrary, seemingly pointless and ridiculous. Whenever the government, the bank, EDF tells me I have to deal with these matters I lie on the floor, curl into a ball, stuff my ears with cotton buds and flip my lower lip with my index finger while emitting faint dweebling noises. (For God’s sake, don’t let that put me in hospital!)
I’ll wager too that, whatever the get-you-to-switch price is, you’ll always end up paying the same. It’s swings and roundabouts, smoke and mirrors. I calculate that it’s worth losing the few notional savings that might be gained, in order not to have to give a fuck about it, ever again. It’s only money. Here, have some more. Look, take another £3 a week…
So yes, Revd Lucy, I have decided what to give up to God this Lententide.
Bloody well everything.