War terminology seems to be getting more and more popular as the recession stretches and deepens. Every time a set of dire statistics are wheeled out to show just how deep in it we all are, grave faced politicians remind us of those dim and distant days when we stuck together and saw off Hitler. Whichever way you look at it, this really is a bit of a stretch. Back then we were being bombed every night by fleets of Heinkel 111’s. The bombers were ordered into the skies by a raging psychopath in
with five million soldiers of the
Wehrmacht at his beck and call. Our problems today are a million miles from
that. Back then, we had an easily identifiable enemy to focus on. Hitler
made no bones about what he had in mind if he ever found a way to get by the
Royal Navy and set his Panzers loose in Berlin . Invade and enslave. Kent
Right now there are no incendiary bombs from the factories of the
Ruhr setting our cities ablaze. Instead
we see the world we have become accustomed to slowly falling apart. Nobody
wants to buy our stuff any more. Hell, we don’t even buy our own stuff any
more. Every night we hear on the news that it is getting worse and it is more
than clear than nobody really has the faintest clue how to turn things around.
Part of the wartime vocabulary is the whole idea of the Frontline Charity. Newsreaders evoke images of embattled organisations heroically trying to deal with a tide of ever desperate humanity. Like most things in life, the reality is rather different from the jazzed up version of things we see on the tele. First Base is very much a frontline charity and on a fairly regular basis we get called up by the media as they look for street level views of the crisis. The young journalists seem to expect cracking photo opportunities of haggard and hungry people queued around the block for emergency food.
Of course the reality is rather different. The reality of the so called Front Line is one of quiet desperation, to borrow the title of one of my recent books which I borrowed from Pink Floyd who borrowed it from a quote from years and years ago.
Yesterday morning I pitched up at First Base to get some stuff together before heading off to talk to a bunch of school kids about how binge drinking and taking drugs isn’t the smartest play right now. A mean, cutting wind straight from
was lancing down Vladivostok Buccleuch St
and nothing much seemed to be moving. In theory it should have been rush hour,
but Dumfries doesn’t do rush hour any more.
There are no longer enough people at work in the town centre for there to be much
of an incentive to rush. Parking is seldom a problem. Half the shops are
boarded up. When we opened up ten years ago every building on the street was
open for business. We were the exception to the rule and quite a few of our
neighbours were less than happy to have a drug agency in their midst. Buccleuch St was
home to solicitors and accountants and financial advisors as well as the Sheriff Court and
the Municipal Chambers. Now half the street is up for sale and nobody seems to
be showing much inclination to buy anything. The court is still doing decent
business and the pharmacy still fulfils prescriptions.
A few weeks ago I was getting some stuff from the place we get our stationary. The owner told me how solicitors who had only a year or two ago ordered five reams of paper every month now only ordered up one ream. When you consider what solicitors charge for a piece of paper, this shows the extent to which commercial activity is grinding to a halt. No wonder so many buildings are now empty and suddenly pointless. These are office buildings and no good for converting into betting shops or pound shops or pawnshops. Or charity shops. Very quietly they have become yesterday’s news.
On to a local high school. It was built in the Seventies and carries a crumbling, peeling memory of that uniquely tacky decade. Lord alone knows how it managed to stay standing through 13 years of New Labour when such buildings were bulldozed and rebuilt thanks to thirty year Wonga style PFI loans. The colour scheme of the dark corridors paid homage to the all but forgotten look of
during the heyday of the Iron Curtain. We had been warned that this particular
fourth year class might be a bit of a handful. But they weren’t. Not remotely.
They were as good as gold and after half an hour or so I kind of wished they would
kick off and start chucking stuff around the room. Instead they wore
expressions of vague fear. And why wouldn’t they? Kids aren’t stupid. They can
see the writing on the wall. They instinctively get the fact that they have
drawn a short straw in terms of their date of birth. Memories of those Saturday
night Westerns of my childhood. ‘How’s it look Chuck? ....It’s quiet…… Too
quiet…” East Germany
Two schools later and we opened up the door to the wet pavement. The Frontline was open for business. Was there a tide of desperate, tearful humanity? Nope. Just a steady trickle. Benefits screwed up. Benefits suspended. Disability pay chopped. Electric bill an unmanageable nightmare. The bell on the door announced people coming in and going out. Paperwork completed and food handed over the counter. Stories told and taken on board. Two guys up from lost jobs in
They were in their early fifties and in no hurry to step away from the wall
heater. Two nights kipping down by the river had taken a toll and all the
homeless hostels were full up. And yeah, life’s a bitch. Hanging on in quiet
desperation is the English way. Except this was Dover . But we’re all British.
And we’re all in it together. Scotland
Later on I drove up to Lockerbie to give a talk to the Presbytery of the Church of Scotland for
and Eskdale. I hadn’t much of a clue what to expect. It was a kind of an AGM
and the agenda looked pretty daunting. Prayers and a hymn kicked things off and
yet again it all felt quiet somehow. I have to say I always feel a little off
key when sitting in the midst of a bunch of people who are praying. Religion
isn’t my bag and what to do with your head is one of those tricky issues. Do
you bow your head out of basic manners and therefore feel like a hypocritical
git? Or do you just keep the chin up and stare ahead and wait for the thing to
run its course? I never much like feeling like a hypocritical git, so I stared
ahead and felt like a bit of a fraud. The guy who had asked me along had
explained that there would be some business to get through before it was time
for me to speak. Was there ever! The minutes from the last meeting of the
Presbytery ran to twenty something pages and agreeing them as a thing to behold.
The clerk announced each page. ‘Are there any corrections for page one of the
minutes?’ A careful pause. ‘Page one is one is adopted….’ ‘Are there any
corrections for page two of the minutes?’……It took a while. Annandale
Convenors and Elders and sub groups were nominated and confirmed until it was time for me to get to my feet to spend fifteen minutes going over how many people lack the means to feed themselves on any given day in Dumfries and
Galloway. And it hit me that
there was the same quietness in the room as there had been in the classroom
earlier in the day. The same quietness that was wrapped around the empty office
buildings of Buccleuch St. Because hanging on in quiet desperation is the
I trotted out the First Base view of the world as seen from our front line post. The time of Government sorting everything out is drawing to a close. Echoes of TS Eliot and English Lit O Level. The
‘This is how the world will end, not with a bang but a whimper…’ Waste Land
The safety net dream time of 1945 is drawing to a close. The lights are winking out one by one on the time when all can be fed and housed and made well again by a benevolent
. Instead we are
entering a time when we are all going to have to relearn the art of looking out
for each other. And this all meant that this group of quietly praying people in
a quiet church hall were very much manning the frontline. In the coming months
and years, churches will have to get back to being what they once were. They
have the space and the kitchens and the volunteers. They will need to resume
their place as a focal point of the community where those who still have do
what they can to help out those who have not. Nanny
I guess they would have liked to hear something more upbeat. Just like the fourth year kids would have liked a more positive outlook. But the front line isn’t a particularly upbeat place to be right now. The guns remain silent and the armies are huddled against the cold whilst a mean east wind leaks through the rusty barbed wire.
And hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way….