As conversions go, it probably doesn’t rank with St Paul, and it happened on the road to Deptford rather than Damascus, but Rachel Johnson, the self-styled “rich bitch from Notting Hill”, has changed her mind about the poor.
A month ago she didn’t think they existed in this country. Not dirt poor, not hungry poor. “I just assumed they were spending their money on something else,” she says. “Cigarettes and television – Sky TV as a human right – booze, probably. The poor people you see on the box are all fat. How, in God’s name, can you be over-weight and hungry? Well, now I know.”
She is not fat. She’s whippet-thin, in fact. And she’s definitely not poor. She slightly bridles at being labelled “rich”, though of course she is. “I’m asset rich, maybe. But I haven’t inherited money. I’ve made all the money I have.”
The assets include the four-storey, stucco-fronted house in Notting Hill we’re sitting in, which she shares with husband Ivo Dawnay (an Old Etonian who works as London director for the National Trust). This is the most fashionable postcode in London; not just posh and expensive, but hip to boot.
Hugh Grant snogged Julia Roberts in the gated communal garden out the back in the eponymous 1999 romcom. The chancellor, George Osborne, grew up across the way in a house reputedly worth £15 million. Rachel’s house isn’t quite in that league but, don’t worry, her feet are bare because she’s an upper-crust, boho media moll, and not because she can’t afford shoes.
The area gets progressively whiter, in every sense, as you walk uphill from Ladbroke Grove Tube station. Long ago, it was a dormitory for West Indian immigrants, but today the only black face in Johnson’s street is a kerbside car-washer, polishing already gleaming 4x4s at £25 (minimum) a time. The nearest shop sells Greek icons. Next door, Clarendon Cross Canines offers grooming and “daycare” for pampered pets – “pop your paws in our doors” – and sells “doggie treats” that cost more than the daily food budget for an entire poor family.
Rachel candidly admits she lives a life of “infinite choice, pleasure and privilege”, but when the television people asked her to live in poverty for a week, she jumped at it.
It was partly timing, taking place just after a fraught family Christmas at their farm on Exmoor (another asset). “We were ready to kill each other and I needed a holiday from them.” And it was partly the challenge. “I am now so precious, so spoilt, so pernickety, so orthorexic. [Me neither: it means obsessed by healthy eating.] You know, even the extra-virgin olive oil had to be cold pressed. All this b******s, and my family were bored with it.
“I thought it would be a complete eye-opener to live absolutely without choice, about what I did in the day, what I put in my mouth. To have no spending power. At all.”
So it came to pass that the former editor of The Lady, who knew what hunger was – she has written graphically about huddling under her pink candlewick bedspread at her prep school sucking on a toothpaste tube to curb the hunger pangs – set out to meet the poor.
The first door she knocked on was a council house in Deptford, south-east London, belonging to Dee, a widow in her 50s. Dee has four daughters, two of whom, Chloe and Diane, are still living at home. Rachel’s first reaction? “I walked in and immediately had to breathe through my mouth. They’ve got an alsatian and seven cats. Don’t ask me what it smelt like, but it’s amazing what you can get used to.”
Their reaction? “They were terribly disappointed. The production company had rather oversold the celebrity thing. The teenagers were expecting Justin Bieber and their poor little faces fell.” It seems The Lady, the magazine for women in need of under-butlers that Rachel used to edit, doesn’t circulate widely in Deptford.
All of which makes her sound a heartless, right-wing caricature. She’s not. At a rough guess I would think it unlikely she subscribes to The Guardian, but she’s funny and smart, with the family penchant for reckless honesty that stops just short of self-parody.
She went in, she says, “like a tornado”. The first thing she did was go through the family budget. Dee, a former seamstress who had a stroke a few years ago, gets five different benefits totalling, Rachel says, £786 a month. Her outgoings added up to £662, leaving not much more than £1 a day each for food. “I flung open the cupboards and they were bare,” (her italics).
Then began three “very long” days. Most of them seemed to be spent in front of the television watching Celebrity Big Brother (“I was bloody grateful it was on”) and eating “these ghastly repetitive meals”.
“They eat the s**ttiest pap – white bread from the food banks, sugar, frozen stuff. The girls were really quite big and unhealthy. What I discovered was that poverty and obesity are two sides of the same coin.”
Rachel seems to have taken charge. “In the end they just sat there while I did the cooking.” She went out to buy proper food – beef and vegetables for a stew – and ended up begging outside Iceland for the odd 9p she did not have.
It still cost over £5. “I suddenly realised this is going to be the story. I come in with my poncey Notting Hill ideas. Instead of living within their means I bust their budget with a sort of Marie Antoinette, let-them-eat-cake-style stew. How I simply couldn’t compute, in my fluffy over-privileged head, that if you only have £3 a day you can’t eat well.
“I was furious. It’s jolly hard, labour intensive, but you can. Anyway, it was damn fine, and it lasted two days.”
Rachel doesn’t blame Dee. In fact, she began to talk about the plight of the poor like a New Statesman editorial. There were things she might have criticised, but doesn’t. The biggest drain on Dee’s finances is a £1,000 loan she took out one Christmas. She still owes more than that and the bailiff calls every week. “Everybody makes poor choices,” says Rachel.
Dee smokes – £4 boxes of Russian cigarettes. Rachel quotes George Orwell: “Tobacco’s the only thing that makes life tolerable.”
Stews need long cooking, and the family watch the “electric” like hawks, Rachel says. The meter’s always running out and they watch TV in their overcoats.
And all those animals? “They get pet food from the food banks; they eat better than humans do. Besides, without the TV and the animals, what would they have in their lives?”
It was so hopeless, Rachel “blubbed”. “Not a full-on, snorting, three-hanky job but it was just so desperate. You just longed to help them but you had this sense of absolutely paralysing powerlessness. There was no night and day. No structure. No leadership or motivation in the house. You could see how depression and giving up altogether settles in very fast.”
The next place, she says, tugged at her heart-strings even more. Jackie and Mick and their two “gorgeous” young daughters live in a council flat at Clacton-on-Sea.
“They were young, they were funny and they were bright.” They were also former heroin addicts with long criminal records. Poor choices again, according to Rachel, who is rather pleased with picking up the lingo – “using” and “going on the rob”.
The family’s budget was weighed down by an “unpayable” fine (originally £100 but since escalated to £600) imposed on Jackie when she stole a packet of washing powder and some bacon from a Tesco Metro. “They were classic chavs,” says Rachel, “but they were a fantastic, loving family. They were desperate to work (Mick is a roofer); they shouldn’t be on benefits, but nobody was giving them a second chance.
“Every time they opened their mouths some new hell was revealed. Everything had happened to them. I had every advantage; they had every disadvantage. I could cry every time I think about them.”
She is still digesting the experience (not to mention the food; she says she was sick for days afterwards). She’s not about to jump into Ed Balls’s arms, and rather blames socialists for a welfare state “where people are paid to do nothing and feel there is nothing they can offer”.
But she thinks the rest of us just don’t get poverty, screen it out of our lives, and Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, should do what she’s just done. She says the answer is stopping people going on benefits in the first place, but it isn’t clear to me, and probably not to her, how that can be achieved.
“There’s this terrible sense of human waste. They’re existing rather than living, like battery hens. Apart from the telly and the cigarettes they are living like animals.”
She’s a novelty now in Notting Hill. “Bizarrely,” she says, “because we live such pampered lives, I think there’s a lot of envy. Lucky old Rachel, she went on poverty safari – an experience they can never have, even with all the money they’ve got. Even Ivo, my husband, was envious.”
The show has made her feel guilty about her own spending habits. “I realised, with a terrible thud, how much money I’ve wasted. I can’t pay my £3 for a ‘flat white’ coffee without thinking that’s a day’s food for a poor family.”
But she’s settling back into the world of the well-off. And, as a well brought-up girl should, she’s already written her thank you notes, and sent a jar of home-made jam to her hosts on Planet Poverty.
Famous, Rich and Hungry is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1