Sometimes a day can be like a saga. A movie. A mini series. A docu-drama. Something from Channel 4 on a weekday night.
At eight o’clock.
I had one of these days yesterday.
It started at eight in the morning and it finished at eight in the evening. Which I guess means that it lasted for twelve hours.
It felt longer than that somehow.
It was a December day in the life of a Foodbank manager.
So if you’re all sitting comfortably….
For once there is no rain and my van is all loaded up and ready to roll. A drive of six miles or so past all the waterlogged fields. Out of town and up into the low hills where the buzzards are killing the slow hours of the morning.
And their breakfast.
I turn left fifty yards into a one street village with a long closed garage and a hall with faded posters in the dusty windows.
Three hundred and fifty yards up a pot holed track past a closed down chicken farm. They can do chickens cheaper in Thailand now. Like most things.
A cottage that has become familiar over the last few weeks. Pretty as a postcard on the outside. Bleak as a Siberian high rise on the inside.
I will call the guy who lives there Donald because the name Donald is rather in the news right now.
Donald is my first used up guy of the day. Donald did the leave school and get a job thing. And he did his job for thirty years until he had an accident at work and wrecked his back. Irrevocably.
So Donald’s working days are done. Donald is all used up and suddenly at the mercy of the State. And being at the mercy of the British State ain’t a good place to be in these straightened times.
In theory the caring state is ready to step up to the plate and take care of things for Donald. You know, all the basics. His rent. His Council Tax. Enough cash to feed himself and keep some credit on his phone. It is a pretty straight forward deal. Pay your taxes and we’ll be there for you when you make the transition from being a working man to a crippled crock.
In practice everything is cocked up. Computers have stopped talking to each other. And when a used up man lives out in the middle of nowhere and hasn’t the credit on his phone ring up and moan about it… well… he just gets forgotten, right?
He shows me his latest letter for the Department of Work and Pensions.
Dear Donald. Thank you for attending a medical. The results conclusively show that you are physically capable of doing any work whatsoever. Which means you are no longer eligible for Employment Support Allowance. So we are taking it off you. You’ll get sixty quid on November 30 and then you’re on your own pal.
Next is a letter which landed two days later from the Council.
Dear Donald. The Department of Work and Pensions has just let us know that they have deemed you to be too sick for ESA. Well that won’t do. So we have decided to come out in solidarity with DWP and take away your housing benefit. Sorry ‘bout that Don . Tootle pip.
These guys are pretty good at coming up with reasons for not giving people any money but I have to say this one is a first. Too sick for benefits.
Once again Donald’s kitchen looks kind of different. It looked different when I took him some food last week. I asked about it and he told me. No money no logs. So he is down to burning his furniture. Oh yeah. Charles Dickens would find many familiar things in Britain 2015.
I ran him out a few bags of logs last week, but they all gone now. Another cupboard has gone up the chimney.
A job for tomorrow then. More logs for Donald. The used up guy who is too sick for benefits.
Back in the van and north up the Nith Valley to our new collection point at the Little Ark Animal Sanctuary in Sanquhar. There is a pick up truck at the top of the track bearing the logo of a fencing outfit. Which I guess explaisn why Alison is looking like she is some kind of modern day Noah. All of the animals are in the yard whilst the fencer is doing his stuff and the sight of 12 food parcels being unloaded from one red van doesn’t half get them going. If anyone out there has anything to say about the quality of First Base emergency food parcels they should have a word with these guys. The donkeys are all trying really hard to plat the poor starving beast of burden card that we sometimes see on fundraising ads. But they really don’t come anywhere close to pulling it off. They are all replendant in their winter coats and their ribs are nowhere to be seen. So I reject their pleadings for an emergency food parcel.
What a cruel bastard I am.
Alison succumbs to the pressure and shares out a packet of value ginger nuts.
Cue happy donkeys.
And its always good to spend quality time with a bunch of happy donkeys.
Will these parcels be enough to see you over Christmas?
They should do. With a following wind. With fingers crossed.
So it's back in the van.
And this time it is over the hills and east to the capital of North Britain. And just like everytime I drive into Edinburgh I can’t help but think about how it might have been if things had gone differently on 18 September 2014. If 45 had been 51. Right now we would have all been counting down to Independence Day.
But enough of that.
Things to do and people to see. A person in fact. And not just any person I’ll have you know. Because even though First Base is a small town charity in a small town town, we are lads who tend to punch above our weight.
Today I have an appointment to see the Minister.
Alex Neil MSP.
Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Communities and Pensioners' Rights
No so bad for a two bit little charity.
My efforts to enter the Parliament building with a coffee to go are firmly rebuffed by a policewoman who is very much of the not to be messed with variety. I finish it outside and take the opportunity for one last fag. A couple of hundred yards away there are a clutch of tents on the other side of the water features. Who and what? Maybe later.
I go back in and I am deemed not to be a terrorist.
Andy arrives in Reception and we are guided through the rabbit warren and up to the the third floor and an office that I am pretty sure bears no resemblance whatsoever to Ian Duncan Smith’s gaff in Westminster.
Fifty minutes pass and I am delighted to discover that Alex Neil doesn’t bear any resemblance to IDS either. What a thoroughly hell of a good lad. I could spout any number of clichés along the lines or down to earth and in touch and gets it. I gather he cut his cloth with Citizens Advice. We share stories and they are the same stories. My stories are about the Donalds and all the other used up people who come to us for something to eat. His stories are about the Donalds and all the other used up people who come to his Friday surgeries because they have nowhere else to go.
He tells me if the Scottish Parliament was only allowed the responsibility of looking after the Donalds and all the other used up people then….
I tell him I am the converted and ther is no need to preach. I am a Yes man. One of the 45. No need to explain. I get it.
I make my pitch. Foodbanks are part of the Welfasre State whether politicians like it or not. And we are getting a pretty crap deal right now. The rest of the Welfare Stae gets £300 billion a year. We get bugger all. Just a whole bunch of referrals. A whole bunch of Donlads and used up people who need their daily bread.
I suggest it is time for the Scottish Goivernment to step up to the plate and help us out. Nothing happy clappy or airy fairy. Something straight forward and practical. We give out 500 food parcels in a month. Then we knock up an invoice for £5 a parcel and send it to Edinburgh. And Ediburgh pays us. £2500 to pay the rent and the phone bill and the electricity and wages and volunteer costs and extra strong, extra large carrier bags.
I have been worried that his eyes would glaze over at this point. But they don’t. He gets it. He has lived plenty of years in the real world. He knows well enough that electricity companies want paying. He knows that should a Foodbank crash and burn it will leave a gaping hole.
Will we see our £5 per parcel? Who knows. But if you don’t ask, you don’t get. Right?
I add the name of Alex Neil to my list of the good guys.
Then I check out the tents.
It’s an Indy Camp. Guys who have decided to stay under canvass until London rule breathes its last.
They put a smile on my face. And I light up. As the lights of the city start to twinkle in the gathering gloom of a frosty night. Under the brooding rocks of Arthur’s Seat. By the shallow landscaped ponds.
And buses go by.
And policemen watch out for Jihadis.
And pigeons wait on American tourists.
And the guys in the tents wait for a country of their own.
Time to move. Back to the car park. And what a car park it is! If Carlsberg did car parks…. Three hundred yards from the front door to the Scottish Parliament and ther are always spaces to be had. And it is £3 for three hours. Like I said. If Carlsberg did car parks…
I throw some information into my SatNav and it lets me know that I have 4.8 miles and twenty minutes to go. It tells me there are no traffic issues between the best car park I know and the library on Oxgangs Rd where I am due to meet Sam at five o’clock.
And this is going to be hard.
I have only met Sam once before and it was very brief. It was on one of the very worst of days. The day we said goodbye to James.
James, the youngest client of our Veterans Project. James, a could have been tearaway who took the King’s Shilling and signed up. James who stood tall and magnificent on a hard, hard tour of Helmand Province. James who left the army when his dad died because his mum needed him. James who was one of the most decent guys it has ever been my honour to meet. James whose conscience and soul could not handle what he had seen and done on that hard, hard tour of Helmand Province. James who took his own life at 23 years old on a bone cold January night.
His brothers in arms from the Regiment came down to carry his coffin under the cold grey January skies.
And Sam was one of the band of brothers. I can still picture him that day. Clearly. He was so tall it made carrying James awkward. Sam the six foot five Fijian with the ram rod back. A face as hard as one of those Easter Island statues. But his eyes. His eyes were windows onto a grief stricken soul.
And I remember standing at the grave side and thinking what a crazy world we live in. Sam. The warrior from a warrior tribe. So many thousands of miles from his South Sea home. Tall and like a king from a Kipling story. Still as a rock. Saying his goodbyes to a fellow warrior.
On a cold, cold day.
James’s mum Nicola called me a few weeks ago. She said she had been talking to Sam on Facebook. She said Sam is out of the Army now. Out in the cold. And things are not so good. Pretty bad in fact. Could First Base do anything? I said we would do our best.
But no promises.
So Sam is the second bird to be felled with my visit Edinburgh stone. My second used up guy of the day.
He is waiting for me. He stands up. All the way up. And it’s a long way. He’s a six foot five version of Marvin Gaye. Hell of a hand shake.
But a very quiet voice. And a story that makes me once again wish that 45 had been 51 and we could be free of London’s bottomless nastiness.
He remembers when they got him to sign the dotted line in Fiji they said that five years served would mean guaranteed citizenship.
He served nine years. Iraq. The Falklands. Northern Ireland. Afghanistan. The same hard, hard Helmand Tour as James. With James. He did the hardest of hard miles. And every month his salary had income tax and National Insurance deducted. Like he was a citizen.
But when he left the army in 2012 he learned the hard way that the British Establishment tell lies.
Citizenship? Who told you that? Good lord. I very much doubt it..
Well. You’ll just have to apply along with all the rest, won’t you? But don’t hold your breath. We’re not overly keen on your type to be frank. No money? No thought not.
So Sam applied. Three years ago. And for three years they have made him sign on. But his was a different sort of sign on. Every Monday he walks six miles into Edinburgh city centre to sign his name in a police station. Like a common criminal. Like a terrorist. Like scum. And then he walks six mailes home agin.
And he waits.
He receives not a penny and he has been told in no uncertain terms that should he do do much as an hour’s work he will be on a plane back to Fiji before he gets the chance to blink.
His partner has left him and she doesn’t let him see his son. His son is five now. The last picture Sam has is of a three year old son.
He has another girlfriend now and she pays the bills. They share one room over a pub. They share a mattress on the floor. And Sam watches TV all day. And one by one the demons of those hard, hard Helmand days are starting crawl into his head like moggots.
Whilst he waits on the Home Office.
And I feel useless and inadequate and so completely ashamed of being British even though I fought tooth and nail not to be. What have we become?
I promise that I will try to what I can.
And I will.
But when all is said and done it is the bloody Home Office we are talking about here.
We stand and shake hands. Maybe there is a faint smile. Maybe not. He thanks me and I feel terrible.
I get in my van and drive south.
He goes back to his one room over the pub and more hours of TV.
And all the way back I remember him in that cold graveyard on that cold January day. Like a statue. Like a king. Like a warrior. So very far from home. Saying goodbye to an unlikely brother in arms.
But a brother all the same.
Christ I really hate this country at times.