I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


Between 1930 and 1933 Christopher Isherwood wrote a series of short stories. They hauntingly caught a mood of storm clouds gathering on the horizon of a sunny summer’s day. As a footloose young guy, he plugged himself enthusiastically to the hedonistic mayhem of Weimar Berlin. Those last gasp years turned out to be a final party before the apocalypse. In 1939 he joined his stories together and called the resulting novel ‘Goodbye to Berlin’. His story is best remembered now by the film ‘Cabaret’ which won Liza Minnelli an Oscar for best actress in 1972.

I mention all this because of a truly fantastic line that appears in the first chapter of the book. Isherwood bridges his fictional self with his author self and describes how he felt as he sat with his typewriter and gazed out of the window on a Berlin waiting for the sky to fall in.

"I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

I guess this rings a bell with anyone writing about stuff that is actually happening as opposed to stuff that is completely made up. Over the last few months Isherwood’s words have come to me more and more as I have done my best to describe the growing wretchedness of those who come into First Base for a food parcel.

I definitely go with the camera idea and I guess in a perfect world, the ‘quite passive, recording, not thinking’ part would be a pretty good idea too. It’s not so easy in practice. Looking sheer injustice in the eye seldom is easy.

The latest raft of benefit changes make it inevitable that there will be more and more ground down individuals coming through our door for a bag of food. Bearing this in mind, I have decided to give this particular blog the title, ‘I am a camera. One’. This of course means that there is more than likely to be ‘I am a camera. Two.’ And three and four and five and so on.


Moments in time.

Dismal case studies from a country trying to live with a new reality where politicians hammer the poor for the sake of a couple of congratulatory paragraphs in the Daily Mail.

In a way, these blogs are exhibits in a growing gallery of misery. As of now, they are merely written down photos of small lives. In the years to come? Who knows? It is hard not to shudder a little at the thought. When Isherwood touched on the growing noise of the Nazis, he did so in a way where their voices were those of drunken louts shouting into the night from a few streets away. A distant and yet palpable threat. Only with the benefit of three quarters of a century worth of hindsight can we see that the seeds of Auschwitz were quietly being sown in the days when he penned ‘Goodbye to Berlin.’


My snapshot.

The first impression I got when he enthusiastically rang the bell on the counter was his smile. It was a big smile. An instinctive smile. We all know people like this. Always a smile on the face. Always a bright side to look on. Always a glass half full. He gave me his referral slip and his story.

He told me about his dyslexia. It was a bad dose. When he sat his exams at school he had been put in a private room and he was given the use of a ‘scribe’ to do his writing. He had no problems with the words in his head and no problem in using them to demonstrate that he was anything but stupid. The problem was getting a hold of those words and finding a way to get them onto paper in the right order. No matter how many times he screwed his eyes shut, those pesky words just downright refused to stay in any kind of manageable order. Numbers were every bit as delinquent.

But my man wasn’t the kind of guy to allow this kind of thing to hold him back. No chance. He decided to dump the need for words in any career and chose to become a chef. Food was much better behaved than words. Food did as it was told and he became a good chef. So it was that he was never out of work for fifteen years from the age of 16 to 31. And he was at pains to point out that he had paid all his taxes and been a model citizen in every way. He never broke a law and became a diligent dad of two, though his relationship with his partner didn’t work out.

Then a bunch of bankers tore down the house of cards and he got made redundant. Not that he was particularly concerned at first. He had always got jobs before. He had a great CV and lots of references. He signed on, but did not expect that state of affairs to last for very long. The dyslexia thing came up in his interview at the Job Centre and no doubt the interviewer dusted off a caring smile and told him not to worry about it. Of course he shouldn’t. This is 2013. We understand these things now. We are a caring, modern post-industrial society and we know how to do the right thing for those among us who are disadvantaged. So when my man explained that dates were always a major problem because those sneaky numbers had a habit of reversing themselves, they promised that he should not worry himself for so much as a moment. They were on it. All over it. They would ring him three days before his every appointment to give him a verbal heads up of the time and place.

So all was tickety boo.

Except that it wasn’t.

He got an appointment for the tenth of September and those devious numbers did their naughty dance and reversed themselves to the ninth of October. There was no reminder call. He missed the appointment. They suspended him for a month.


For the next few weeks the numbers fell kindly. There is no way that 23 January can sensibly reverse itself to the first of the twenty third. But the fourth of March was to be his nemesis. For the umpteenth time in his life, the numbers traded places and whilst he was waiting for an appointment on the third of April he received news that he had missed an appointment on the fourth of March and was duly suspended again.

For twelve weeks.

Oh, and there had been no reminder call again.

Like so many in this situation, he genuinely couldn’t believe he could be treated like this. Not in Britain. Not in 2013. Not after paying all those taxes. He pleaded his case with the Job Centre and they told him there was nothing they could do. It was out of their hands. He would need to call Kilmarnock. These are words we hear just about every day. 'They told me to call Kilmarnock'. It means endless waiting and canned music. The result tends to always be much the same. Sorry, but that is how it is. You can appeal if you like. Not much point though. Nobody ever wins an appeal.

The next stop was the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and after another long wait they were sympathetic and confirmed the fact that he had a right to appeal. Not that there was much point. Nobody ever wins an appeal.

All he got for his efforts to undo what he was convinced had to be an honest mistake was a slip for a food parcel and confirmation that his life was officially down the pan.

Even before losing his dole for three months, his relationship with the State had been slipping. The courts had deemed that his share in the upbringing of his two kids was to be every Friday to Sunday. Which was OK. But there was a complication. Once he lost his job, he moved in with his brother. They now share a two bedroom flat in a small town where they once upon a time did coal mining and now do nothing much at all. The court was not happy with this. It breached the way things have to be. Two adults, two kids, two bedrooms ….. sorry, but we’re not having that. We’re not having that at all. If you want to have your kids for the weekend, you need to get a two bedroom flat of your own. OK. Fair enough. He explained his situation to the local housing association and got himself on the list. Right now he sits at number one on that list and a two bed flat is his for the taking. But there is a problem. The court is insistent that he must have a two bed flat to have his kids, but the DWP say that as he is not the main carer he will have to stump up for the bedroom tax. And the maths don’t make for happy reading. Here is how the monthly numbers play out should he take on a flat.

Incomings – Dole - £240

Outgoings – Cost of getting kids to and from once a week - £80

Cost of travelling to Dumfries to sign on twice a month - £20

Bedroom Tax - £45

Amount left? £75.

£19 a week. That’s for food, heating, and looking after two kids for three days a week.

Basically there is only one feasible way out of this hellish situation – get a job! You could travel far and wide and never meet anyone as motivated to get a job as my man is. He is absolutely busting a gut. We are told that the new tough sanctions regime is all about giving the shirkers a vigorous prod. No it isn’t. Not in this case anyway. It is nasty and shoddy. And to make sure that the staff at the Job Centre all play by the new rules and don’t allow any moral scruples to get in the way of deficit reduction, they are all set hard targets to meet. Sanction three people a week or else. It is utterly unfair to pin any of the blame for this kind of thing on the people working in the JobCentrePlus. When all is said and done they are just people. Like the rest of us, they have mortgages to pay and families to feed and clothe. We can all be holier than thou and say that our consciences would never allow us to manipulate a decent guy’s chronic dyslexia to meet a sanction target. Well it’s easy to say that. Not so easy to do it when the threat of redundancy is hanging over your head and covering the mortgage is already hard enough.

All of the fault as per usual lies with the State which seems hell bent of acting with a petty, callous brutality and all but no logic. The State seems happy enough to shell out big bucks to pay court costs to make sure that my man cannot let his kids have his room for the weekend when they come to stay whilst he kips down on the couch. How much has that cost? Lots I would guess. The State pays its lawyers to harangue the Sheriff into demanding that hell will freeze over before my man is allowed to have his kids for the weekend in anything other than a two bedroom abode. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pounds splashed out on laying down the law. But when it comes to helping a guy who has paid sixteen years of tax and hit hard times, it is a very different story. An extra £11 a week to help pay for that required extra room is deemed to be out of the question. Suddenly there is a budget deficit to deal with.       

Once again the way a single individual has been manipulated, tricked and shafted to meet some tawdry target set by faceless civil servants is evidence of a system that is beginning to stink like a pile of rotten fish.

I am but an insignificant camera in an insignificant small town that hardly registers. All I do is take the photo and post it on a wall.

Along with all the others.

1 comment:

  1. They made us 'do' that I am a camera in school as a comprehension aged 11 and I didn't 'get it'. I shall re-read it! And I think that what you are doing in your pieces is absolutely great - recording these things and giving a voice - bearing witness, sometimes its all we can do. If we don't do it no one will ever know/remember. It may not change things immediately, but it makes it harder for them to be whitewashed in the future! Keep at it buddy.