You know what, I got to spend yesterday afternoon visiting royalty. I guess this might make the picture of Jack and I passing the time of day a tad confusing. A donkey? So where are the Corgis and the polo ponies then?
I sympathise with your confusion. I really do.
So here’s the thing. It wasn’t THAT royalty. You know. Britain’s most successful EU migrant family. Those upwardly mobile Germans from Saxe Coburg who have smashed all records for housing benefit payments. For most EU migrants residing in London, the £23,000 benefit cap can be a little restricting. I mean it is hard enough to get HMG to cover the rent on a two bed flat on the eighteenth floor of a Hackney high rise. So palaces tend to be out of the question. But not for the Saxe Coburgs. They managed to negotiate themselves an exemption and the rest is history.
But like I said. I wasn’t visiting THAT particular dynasty.
Instead I got the chance to spend some time with a representative of a very different dynasty. Which explains the presence of Jack the donkey in the picture.
Let’s wind the clock back for a moment or two. A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a lady who is running an animal sanctuary in Sanquhar. She told me that they were looking to provide some homeless accommodation for vagrant chickens. And she wondered if First Base would like to take the eggs from the rescued chucks and include them in our food parcels.
And I said yes, you bet we would. Of course we would. But in truth I really wasn’t listening properly. You see by this time the lady had introduced herself.
Well Alison is a perfectly nice name but not a name to set the brain running fast. Well, at least not my brain.
Alison’s surname however was a different matter entirely.
And so it was that while Alison ran through her plans to get into the rescued chicken game, my mind was running in geography mode.
Sanquhar. Dumfries and Galloway. Population – 2000. Or thereabouts. Reason for existence in the first place? Coal. Lots and lots of Victorian coal.
A small coal mining village sitting atop the very same coalfield as another small coal mining village a few miles to the north.
A village that is now nothing more than a ghost village. A few overgrown bricks. A track that winds up into the bare hills and ends up nowhere at all. A place remembered by old photos of hard terraced streets in the midst of a Scottish wilderness.
And just like Saxe Coburg’s greatest claim to fame is being the home turf of a migrant family who made good in another country, Glenbuck’s most famous son did exactly the same.
We are talking of the king of the Kop here.
We’re talking Bill Shankly.
I did the maths. Sanquhar to Glenbuck? As the crow flies? Twenty miles maybe. Maybe even less.
Could it be?
Well it could.
Alison told me that she was married to the great man’s nephew.
I am sure such a revelation would be enough to make any true Liverpool fan lose their words. When I first walked into Anfield in the autumn of 1973, I remember staring in awe from my place on the Kop to where the great man was sitting in the dug out. He was Caesar in his Coliseum. A magnetic presence. In charge of everything. The team. The fans. All of it.
And this was not a king who had assumed his throne through marriage or birth. He was a warrior king who had taken his empire by the seismic force of his will power and charisma.
A small man from the Ayrshire coalfield who basically conquered the world of football. And of course we will never see his likes again. Sorry Brendan, but you are the very palest or pale shadows.
And here was a member of the great man’s dynasty offering free range eggs for our Foodbank. Life can be a truly crazy gig at times.
Would I like come along to check out the animal sanctuary? Well of course I would. And yesterday I did.
In 2013 Alison lost her son, Clark. She channeled the energy of her grief and created an animal sanctuary in his memory. Clarke had always loved animals and Clarke had always loved to see people happy. So the idea was a simple idea. Make a place where animals can make people happy.
She managed to buy a piece of land in the grounds of an abandoned brickworks half a mile outside the village and got on with building Clark’s Little Ark. And in my humble opinion, Alison and her many helpers have created a near perfect charity. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have all kinds of issues with the bullying super charities who seem hell bent of acting like Footsie 100 corporations. When was it that the Voluntary Sector went so slick and corporate? When was it that everything suddenly started to revolve around mission statements and branding and chief execs on six figure salaries ruling their roosts from offices with the right kind of London postcode?
You will find none of that at Clark’s Little Ark.
Instead you’ll find donkeys and ponies and ducks and a pig. And some of the nicest people you could ever meet. It costs a visitor nothing to visit. So on a sunny day families who struggle to make the weekly shop can take the kids for a walk up the hill out of the village to spend some time with the animals.
And it doesn’t cost a penny. Fresh air and good company and break from the relentless adverts on the spinning hours of daytime TV.
Buy this, buy this, buy this….
You need, you need, you need….
Rolling images of ever so perfect families in ever so perfect homes with ever so perfect pearly white teeth with the disposable income to buy their little treasures anything they want to buy them.
And what can you do when the TV keeps on telling your kids that proper TV parents take their kids on extra special days out? All the time. To McDonalds. To Burger King. To Disneyland.
Where do you go when even the cracks under the cushions on the couch have been drained of loose change? It is just another dismal brick in the walled in poverty that passes for day to day life for so many millions in Britain 2015.
Well the parents of Sanquhar DO have a place to go when the sun is shining. They can spend and hour or two in Clark’s Little Ark.
And it isn’t just a place for kids. Workers bring along clients with mental health problems. Probation Workers send along angry youngsters to do their community service time and to drain away their aggression in the calming company of the animals.
And it works for the simple reason that it is simple. All of the volunteers who help out Alison do so for the simple reason that they want to help. They want to contribute. They want to make life a bit better for people who really need their lives to be a bit better. There is nothing corporate or condescending.
And there is no judgement.
No forms to fill in. No intrusive questions. No condescending voices that treat everyone like they are five years old with learning difficulties.
No bloody means testing.
No questions about criminal records.
Just old fashioned friendliness. Of course it helps that Sanquhar is a mining community. It is in the DNA of mining communities all over the world to look after their own.
Nobody is being paid anything. Everyone is a volunteer. Every hutch and shed has been donated. Every fence and enclosure has been cobbled together from old pallets and planks by weekend handymen.
What a brilliant, brilliant place.
As I drove back down the Nith Valley to Dumfries I was reminded of a story I read about Bill Shanky’s first few days in the Anfield job way back in 1959. Liverpool was a complete car crash of a club when he walked through the doors. We were stone broke and facing relegation to the third division.
The stadium was falling apart and the training ground at Melwood was even worse. Bill took a look at the training pitches and he was appalled. They were covered in litter and broken glass and stones. They were not even close to being fit for purpose. So this what he did on his first morning.
He gathered up the squad and introduced himself. Then his asked the players to run laps around the pitch. He got is coaching staff together and handed them a bag each. He lined them up on the touch line with himself in the middle of the line. And then they slowly walked the length of the pitch picking up every piece of litter and every piece of broken glass and every stone.
Up and down they went.
Up and down.
For one day and then two days and then three days.
And all the while the players ran their laps and watched their new manager walk up and down and up and down until there was not a single bit of litter, glass or stone to be found on the training pitch.
And after watching him for three days, they were already his men. Ready to run through brick walls for him.
And over the next fifteen years they ran through brick wall after brick wall until Liverpool became the greatest football club on planet earth.
That was Bill keeping it simple. Bill the coal miner socialist who always got mucked in. Bill who could turn the simple things into magic things.
And as I drove I found a huge smile on my face at the thought of the great man looking down on Clark’s Little Ark.
It is his kind of place. Rooted a mile deep in the community. Made open and welcoming by people who just want to help other people out. The socialism of the old coalfields. Plain, uncomplicated decency.
When we reached the cup final in 1965 thousands of fans wrote to Bill asking for his help in getting a ticket to the game. Wembley wasn’t even close enough to being big enough for him to be able to make it happen. Instead he sat in his office for night after night writing letters of apology. By hand. And he addressed every envelope by hand. And he licked every stamp. Because these were his people. And he saw it was the right thing to do.
A simple thing.
No wonder we still take a moment to nod to his statue at the back of the Kop.
It really made my day to find his old generous, socialist spirit alive and kicking like a mule in Clark’s Little Ark.
I was bowled over when I arrived. One of the volunteers had a cheque for me. £300. It was from an Edinburgh reader of this blog and had sent it down to her as a Sanquhar reader of this blog. This kind of jaw dropping generosity never ceases to make my jaw drop.
Here is the link to the Clark's Little Ark Facebook page.
They have a feed bill which runs to £3000 a year and there can be fewer better homes for a few quid. They deserve all the support they get. Many thanks for a truly uplifting afternoon guys.