I generally hate stories that begin with ''When it was first suggested ..." but when humanitarian agency Concern Worldwide suggested I take part in the Live Below the Line campaign, in which participants survive for five days with just £5 to spend on food and drink, I thought:
how hard can it be?
A bit of planning, a few essentials and the odd very small luxury. Not exactly a doddle but must have done worse.
Loading article content
I've been lucky enough never to have been poor. OK, there was the potato and cabbage diet in student days but that was ... well, self-inflicted. In those days beer seemed somehow more important than food. Since then it's not been a struggle to put food on the table.
But I've seen poverty ... real poverty. In Pakistan, where people slave to eke a meagre living from the land and where the results of that effort can be swept away in an instant by a natural disaster. And more recently in Jamaica, where hungry children face a future of violence and despair.
But there's a big difference between seeing the effects of hunger and experiencing hunger itself.
Of course, I'm not suggesting that spending five days living on just £5 in a comfortable home in a well-paid job gives any real insight into the effects of grinding poverty day after day, week after week, year after year. But it is an eye-opening lesson in how even temporary hunger can affect a life.
It probably wasn't the best week to undertake the challenge. There was the small matter of a lunch and dinner for a work colleague who was retiring. Sitting for hours sipping tap water while all around you are tucking into mouth-watering meals ... well, it's not fun.
But then no time is good. This week, for example, I'm going to London, and you can't go behind enemy lines without rations (that was a joke, so don't go getting all "nation of drunks" on me).
I made mistakes. I made a lot of mistakes. First, I didn't plan properly. A large pack of porridge oats was a good buy at 80p. Cheese costing £1 rather less so. A small loaf, some milk, some tea bags, two pot noodles (for £1). Not much change out of a fiver there.
So basically it went like this: porridge for breakfast, cheese sandwich or a pot noodle for lunch, porridge for dinner. The problem was I don't generally get home from work until 10pm. The porridge kept me going until midday ... but then I had to have lunch. That left about nine long and empty hours before I could eat again. This was not an example of smart planning.
So here's what I learned:
1: Hunger stops you thinking properly. You can't focus for longer than a couple of minutes and you simply want difficult decisions to go away. Heaven knows how much more difficult it must be if you are also having to juggle paying bills, travelling to find work, the demands of a family and the 101 domestic problems an average day throws up.
2: Hunger makes you depressed. Really, really depressed. Hours open up in front of you with nothing to look forward to and no prospect of any little feelgood treats.
3: I am very, very lucky, as is almost everyone I know. I have the luxury of not having to worry about how I'm going to find my next meal. I have the luxury of having time to worry about matters that are not essential to my very existence. I should remind myself of this every day.
4: I drink way too much coffee. After two days without my regular eight cups every 24 hours my head was splitting and my throat ached, a worse trial than the gnawing hunger pangs in my stomach.
So will five painful but short days change my life? Well, I'll never again listen to anyone blame the poor for their own plight without explaining to them how hunger can simply rule out behaviour that lives up to middle-class expectations.
And I'll probably give more to charity ... and I hate to beg but you can still help to make the five days' suffering worthwhile by donating to my efforts for Concern at livebelowtheline.com/me/sundayherald.
But really, when I woke up yesterday morning and had an absolutely fantastic breakfast, life was back to normal. And normal is great for me ... but not so much for the billions who wonder if today will be the day the few grains of rice that keep them alive simply can't be found.