This really is a year of two very different Christmas worlds. Every waking hour of the day sees our various senses assaulted by frantic companies offering us lots of solutions to all our Christmas problems – what to give, what to wear, what to eat. Christmas on the tele is a snowy dreamland of a place where the streets are teeming with beaming families laden with tree ready presents. Mums of the year pull perfectly cooked turkeys from gleaming ovens in gleaming kitchens. Santa as everywhere.
Close your eyes and picture the typical
TV Christmas High St. It has a kind of
Victorian feel about it minus the pinch faced urchins with rickets. Most of the
shops have a family owned look about them and their windows are decked out like
something out of a Disney movie. The shoppers wear duffle coats and bobble hats
and everyone is smiling so hard that they are in danger of ripping their faces.
A soft snow is fluttering down and yet miraculously it isn’t turning to grey
slush once it hits the pavement.
The Yuletide town centres of the adverts are the kind of place you would really like to be. In fact they are a bit like the rural dreamscapes where they make cider.
And then there is the reality.
The cold hard December reality of Great Britain 2014.
I took a walk into town yesterday to pay some cash into the bank. The Atlantic weather bomb the weather guys had told us about with such relish had very much arrived. The wind had the same kind of ugly brute force as a speeding coal wagon as it ripped along Buccleuch St. The miserable cut to the bone Christmas lights hung onto their lampposts like Philippino villagers in a typhoon.
No duffle coats and bobble hats. Just a small queue of cars with steamed up windows and a bus a third full of glumness.
Onto the High Street and not a family owned shop in sight. A couple of pound shops had made a half hearted effort to sell the idea of Christmas for a quid. Nobody had bothered to decorate the boarded up windows and why would they have? Still no duffle coats and bobble hats. In fact there were hardly any people at all. Just a few bent hurrying figures looking uneasily like the broken refugees from a Balkan war.
I met one of our food parcel regulars who was wrapped from head to toe in the kind of winter wear you can pick up for 50p from any good charity shop. Under the layers his face had a pale unshaven look and his eyes looked beaten. He told me that he was spending his morning looking for docked fags. Just like he spends every morning. But when the gutters struggle to handle the gurgling fallout of an Atlantic weather bomb, it ain’t such a great time to be out and about hunting for dockers.
Back in First Base there was a small queue of clients waiting for a bag of food. No duffle coats and bobble hats. Behind the counter Lesley and Iain are doing their best to inject some cheer and to be fair there was a mood to join in. But it is kind of hard to be cheerful when the power is off and the damp cold has gnawed its way all the way into your bones. One by one they unpacked their stories. The usual stories. Benefit sanctions and delays and appeals.
The stories of people who live lives which are forever ten pounds away from an empty cupboard.
A guy in his forties came through the door and asked if I could spare a couple of minutes for a word. Sure I could. He climbed up the stairs and looked soaked to the skin. Did he want a brew? No thanks. He said
had told him it would be OK
to call in. He said he had a wife and two kids at home, a fiver on the meter
and nothing to eat. He said that the Job Centre were not happy with him. He
couldn’t really understand why. He had been going online every day to fill in
application forms. But they said he hadn’t been logging on properly. If he didn’t log on
properly, how could they know if he had logged on at all? But if he hadn’t logged
on how could he have filled in the application? That mattered not a jot. If he
didn’t log on properly, as far as they were concerned he hadn’t logged on at
all. And so without quite knowing how or why his life had descended into a
Kafkaesque nightmare. Sandy
For some odd reason the Job Centre had decided to give him a tenner a week. Was that some kind of Christmas spirit? Maybe it was. Usually they give nothing. They had told him to appeal.
There was something in his eyes that worried me. It was the Balkan refugee thing again. Beaten. Competely beaten and devoid of so much as a shred of hope. Shuffling along the queue to the place where the balaclava clad executioners are doing their thing.
A potted life story.
Out of school at sixteen and straight onto a building site. A quarter of a century building stuff in and around
A wife and a house and two kids. Then he decided that he was ready for a change
and took up the chance to be the night manager job in a homeless hostel. Big
mistake. Night after night the booze and valium fuelled violence of the
residents ate away at him. Scared him. Drove him all the way to a nervous
breakdown and pots of pills from the doctor. He was on the sick for a while as
he got himself back together.
Then it was time to go back to the building site. Except it wasn’t because things had changed. He found that to get back into the building trade he would need to get a CSCS card to prove he was up to speed with the world of health and safety. OK, so how?
You pay your £200 and sit the test. 100 questions. Multiple choice. A walk in the park. And what if you don’t have £200?
Job Centre time. Could he access his £200 learning account provided free and gratis by our ever caring State? Sure he could. Except the paperwork for some reason took six months to come good. When the cash arrived he got the books and did the best he could. Not good enough. He failed. He took the thing again and failed again. His problem was that when he left school at sixteen he really hadn’t done all that well. That was why he chose a career on building sites.
Surely 25 years of experience should count for something? It would be nice to think it would. But it doesn’t. Not in Great Britain 2014. In Great Britain 2014 you need a CSCS card to lay bricks.
So now he needs to come up with another £200 to get the chance to sit the test again. At £10 a week, it will take him five months to save the cash always assuming that he and the rest of the family knock luxuries like food and electric light on the head.
Fifteen miles down the road in the small town of
there is a fish
factory that works 24 hours a day in December to keep the shelves of M&S
filled with smoked salmon. It is the time of year when they take on temporary staff and
there is no requirement for a CSCS card. He made an appointment with his
adviser at the Job Centre and asked for some help in applying for a slot on the
fish packing team. Annan
Do you speak Polish?
I said do you speak Polish?
No. I don’t speak Polish.
Well there’s no point in applying then.
Because in Great Britain 2014 you need to make like Lech Walesa to get the chance to shrink wrap salmon for M&S to create that perfect TV Christmas table.
No wonder his eyes were dulled into such utter defeat.
A phone message.
A home carer had called. There was a client outside the
who hadn’t eaten for a
while. Could we take a food parcel round? Back story? Jesus. Registered blind
with a sixteen year old son. What was in cupboard had been enough for her to feed son and get him to school. village of Johnstonbridge
She had gotten by on cups of tea.
For five days.
We don’t do deliveries but what can you do….
I humped a week’s worth of eating into my boot and headed out of town. The weather bomb was raging over dark hills and the trees were all bent double. It was a grey afternoon tailor made for filming the darker corners of Macbeth. Dumfries and Galloway is drop dead gorgeous on a sparkling day in May but on a howling ay in December it can seem as unrelenting as the
Grey sodden fields and clusters miserable sheep. Dark brooding copses and battened down pebble-dash villages with the feel of a post nuclear world. The directions said to look left fifty yards by a humpback bridge.
I looked left and there it was.
A crumbling cottage on a rocky hill with the carcases of long dead cars in the yard. The track was rutted enough to make 5mph seem way too fast. The barbed wire was rusty. The dry stone walls looked like broken teeth. The gale roared through a broken barn like a Panzer division.
She met me at the door with her sightless eyes. She was clad in many layers of torn clothes which suggested that thinks had been hard for a while. Another refugee of a another Balkan war.
And apologies and more apologies. Shredded pride. And of course she had never dreamed it would ever come to this. Do any of us?
A week ago her husband had upped sticks and buggered off into the bottomless greyness of December. And he had taken the Post Office card with him. And they hadn’t done the weekly shop.
She had hoped it would be a short lived tantrum and he would soon be back. And so a day went by and then two days and then three. And she had lived of cups of tea and stretched the cupboard to feed her son.
After five days she had told her home carer and her home carer had told us.
And here I was with a week’s worth of eating and guarantee of more should more be required.
Maybe he’ll come back.
And if he doesn’t, there will be a new card for the Post Office and life will go on.
Back in the car I switched on the radio to try and distract myself with some football talk. But I hit an ad break and an audio version of that perfect Christmas.
I switched off and drove down grey roads in silence.
The gale thundered along the skyline and the rain made the wipers work hard for a living.
No duffle coats and bobble hats.
No people at all.
Just wet fields filled with wet sheep. Just a husband gone with the post office card and an hundred question multiple choice test for a CSCS card.
Just a whole bunch of tailor made extras for one of those movies about a Balkan War.