We need to share the fruits of our harvest

October 29, 2023

You know the song, Monster Mash, that gets wheeled out at Halloween parties? I’m sure some of us have been guilty of some pretty monstrous dancing to this after a few too many ‘witches brews’. But the title got me thinking. Many of our Halloween traditions are a mash-up.

We tend to assume our own childhood was ‘typical’. Why wouldn’t we? It’s when we adopted our cultural heritage.

Chatting with my team at work revealed otherwise. As kids, my brothers and sister carved Halloween lanterns from turnips. Stick in a candle, then off round the streets to knock on doors. Kind-hearted adults would feign amazement at our artistic skills and hand us a 5p or 10p coin. I was once so overjoyed to get 50p, I still remember gazing at it, open mouthed, in the palm of my hand.

Today kids get sweets, not money. I’d assumed that was the passage of time, and American TV influence. Apparently not. One of my team, only a few years younger, is from London. They had pumpkins, and always “trick or treated”. My wife is from Liverpool. Her mam told her ‘respectable’ children did not ask for money. So she secretly went out ‘tricking’ with her friends. No treats. And despite being out there in the zeitgeist, I’ve never seen anyone bobbing for apples.

And yes, we carved turnips. I was a teenager before I realised that ‘pumpkin’ was actually a different vegetable, and not an alternative name. Don’t get me started on turnip vs swede.

After explaining this to my kids a few years back, they wanted to try carving a turnip. Or swede. Whatever. While you can scoop out a pumpkin with an ice-cream spoon, turnip-swedes need a strong, sharp knife and a firm hand.

One year my younger son was going through a James Bond phase. Intrigued by cold war spies and Soviet double agents. He carved a hammer and sickle insignia into his lantern, effected a theatrical Russian accent, and ‘Comrade Turnip’ was born. “Ah, Meester Bond, you will tell us everything once you taste delicious Russian turnip!” Needless to say, Comrade Turnip was a limited-edition Halloween tradition.

That’s the thing about traditions – they’re always changing and morphing. Our traditions, like our language, are Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Angle, Viking, Norman… the list goes on. Everything British is an accretion of many cultures. I recall one TV sketch which encapsulates this beautifully.

“How many times a week, on average, do you eat curry?” asks David Walliams, playing a xenophobic immigration officer.
“On no, I don’t like curry,” says Matt Lucas, playing a British Asian with a Bradford accent. “No, I prefer English food, you get me? Like pizza or Chinese.”

You can watch the full sketch HERE.

Food is the basis of our cultural festivals. Finding comfort at a fearful time. The coming of winter. Did the harvest yield enough food to see us through to spring? Would winter be harsh and claim the lives of cattle or even family? The reaper felt very close at this time of year.

Sharing these fears and finding comfort remains important. Today’s Britain has no shortage of food. But wealth inequality means there’s a shortage of money to buy it.

In agricultural societies, you were dependent on the harvest. In ours you’re dependent on your income from work. Unless you owned large amounts of land, or today, financial assets.

A hard-working medieval peasant could still starve through bad weather. Today, hard-working people can still be raising their kids in destitution. Unable to afford the essentials of heating, food and shelter.

Last week’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation report documented 3.8 million people experiencing destitution last year. Including 1 million children. Yet three-quarters of poor children live in households with working adults.

Keeping people in poverty costs us a fortune. The Conservatives are on their way out. Sadly, they’re more likely to hand out tax cuts to the rich than tackle extreme poverty.

Three weeks ago I called upon the Labour Party to commit to ending destitution in the next Parliament. It’s morally right, makes economic sense, and would be popular on the doorstep. They should start by scrapping the inhumane two child benefit cap.

As Mayor I’ve created thousands of new jobs. Our ground-breaking child poverty prevention programme is doing great work in 98 schools. It has been hailed as a model of best practice. It’s changing lives, but it’s a drop in the ocean.

Millions are living in fear of poverty and debt. Every day I see communities banding together to help each other. We need our party leaders to find some courage to help them. Like those early societies, we must continue to offer the warmth of our fires and the fruits of our harvest with those that need it most.