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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Zoe Williams

Dining across the divide: ‘I didn’t want to rant on, to spoil her lunch’

Sally (left) and Niamh
Sally (left) and Niamh. All photographs: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

Sally, 63, St Austell, Cornwall


Occupation Retired, but recently went back to work to become a “living well” coordinator, supporting elderly people

Voting record Nearly always Labour, though has voted Lib Dem tactically

Amuse bouche When Sally was between houses, she moved in to a Travelodge, which was accommodating some homeless people she’d met when working in a cafe for the low-waged. So she knows how distressing it can be not to have a home

Niamh, 57, Saltash, Cornwall


Occupation Runs her own management consultancy business

Voting record A bit of a floating voter but tends to vote Conservative; voted Labour during the Blair years

Amuse bouche Renovates houses in her spare time; her main takeaway is getting other people to do the plastering

For starters

Niamh I had the pork belly and they did this really nice dish, where they mashed up a baked potato with cream and cheese and put it back together.

Sally I had the same, with a small wine, a coffee and a slice of Victoria sponge.

Niamh I really loved Sally. She was chatty. I think she was quite nervous. I think she thought I might be some sort of a hedge fund manager.

Sally I was worried she might be quite rightwing. She was very charming.

Sally and Niamh outside the Mess Hall

The big beef

Niamh I think the whole concept of retirement is a myth: we shouldn’t retire if we are still healthy enough to work, for a whole host of reasons. From a financial perspective, if you’re relying on the state pension, it’s not going to be very much, and you’re not going to have a very happy retirement. And there are mental health benefits to work. We do live a lot longer now – they set the age at the mid-60s at a time when people basically died in their mid-60s.

Sally I said: “Fine, but if you’re standing on the shop floor at Asda for 10 hours, or in a care home, you’re just not well enough by your 60s.” If you’re a writer, it’s different. Almost a quarter of women have some form of disability, and it increases with age.

Niamh If people are not able to work for health reasons, then obviously they shouldn’t work. In the end, we both had the same view, although we’d come at it from different angles. Sally’s problem – which I really wasn’t aware of – is that her generation were given very little warning that the pension age was about to increase. If you hadn’t planned for that, that’s a disaster.

Sally Me and my friends are all back at work, in fairly low-paid jobs: in Cornwall, it’s hospitality, it’s retail, it’s £10 an hour. Most of my friends have got two or three jobs, and they’re in their 60s. It’s terrible! We’re well-educated with degrees, but there’s an ageist thing, I think.

Sally and Niamh

Sharing plate

Niamh Housing in Cornwall is very tricky. It’s a very diverse population. Some of the most expensive houses in the country are here, and some of the most deprived areas as well. We have a lot of second homes.

Sally If you’re on a low income, you can’t buy anywhere and you can hardly rent. I don’t think doubling the council tax on second home-owners is going to make any difference to people who’ve got half a million pounds to spend. I think we need to know exactly how many second homes there are and cap the percentage.

Niamh I can see where she’s coming from, and they have tried to ban them in St Ives. But it hasn’t resulted in more affordable homes for local people.

Sally and Niamh

For afters

Niamh Our upbringings were reasonably similar: our mums always wanted to make sure that we had a way of earning money ourselves. My mum was of a generation where she was forced to give up her job when she got married.

Sally Mine was training to be a nurse and then the war broke out. She lost two fiances; my father was number three. When the war was over, she wanted to carry on her nurse’s training, but as soon as she was pregnant, she was out.

Niamh I think my mum was always a bit miffed that she was forced to give up her job, so part of it was worrying about us and part of it was vicariously living through us.

Sally and Niamh


Sally I didn’t want to rant on, to spoil her lunch. So we did get on. We might meet up again for coffee sometime.

Niamh I fully expect to meet Sally again. We definitely found common ground.

Sally and Niamh

Additional reporting: Kitty Drake

• Niamh and Sally ate at the Mess Hall in Lostwithiel

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