At First Base we try and try and try to make sure we never judge. In our game, the day we start judging is the day we become no good at what we do. Sadly this way of going about things is hardly the norm. Way too many front line charities like nothing better than come up with new ways to weigh up which of their clients are deserving poor and which are undeserving poor. Judgement lies at the heart of everything they do. Means testing forms are filled and assessments made. Those who are polite and sober and nicely dressed are good to go. Those with methadone teeth and cheap cider on the breath are dressed down and rationed
It is hardly surprising so many people in the voluntary sector spend so much of their time judging. It has always been a British habit and recently it seems to have become particularly ingrained. The so called undeserving poor are reviled all the way from the floor of the House of Commons to the front page of the Daily Mail to the counter at the local Spar shop. Shirkers and scroungers and junkies and bagheads. They are too fat, they have too many tattoos, they smoke too much and they watch too much of the wrong kind of TV at the wrong time of day. And absolutely worst of all, they don't doff their caps with enough deference when they walk through the door of the voluntary sector to seek help.
Sadly far too many foodbanks are more than happy to toe the Government line of short, sharp, shock therapy being the answer. So it's means testing and rationing and gossiping and tut tutting.
All any of this achieves is to constantly widen the gap between us and them. The winners and the losers. Our side and their side. The haves and have nots. Which of course makes those on the wrong side of the tracks feel ever more pissed off and depressed and resentful. And messed up lives become chaotic lives and everything falls apart.
As the fictional Colonel Walter E. Kurtz once said from his fictional hideaway at the end of the Nung river,
'It's judgement that defeats us.'
Amen to that.
So at First Base we never judge. But that doesn't alter the facts as presented. It is impossible not to wonder.
So here's the tale of two family food parcels delivered yesterday in our sleepy corner of Scotland.
Calling my deliveries 'food parcels' paints the wrong kind of picture. It summons up an image of brown paper and neatly tied string. Well that wasn't the kind of thing I delivered yesterday. You see, these were not small nuclear families. These were both families of six and the kind of grub you need to keep a family of six going doesn't fit into a neatly tied packet. We're talking multiple extra large carrier bags straining with the weight of all the tins.
For obvious reasons I will be vaguer than vague about the actual details. Anonymity is king.
The first delivery involved a drive of a few miles to a nearby small town. Yesterday was the day when Scotland's geese were all getting out of Dodge and heading south in arrow shaped formations. They owned the blue skies above whilst the poor sods below looked up with jealousy. Going somewhere sunny for the winter has plenty of attractions.
At ground level I found the street I was looking for. And I found the right grey pebble dash house with the right number on the door. Google maps got me to the street and a work along the even numbers on the right hand side of the road got me to the front door. But I guess I could have found the place in another way. I could have plugged into the how to judge the undeserving poor tool kit. You see, my destination was the house with the overgrown front garden and all the bin liners. Too busy watching Jeremy Kyle to cut the grass, right? And all that junk attracts rats.... Calls to the Council. Calls to the social landlords. Appalled talk in hushed voices at the post office counter.
Knock, knock. Door open. The sound of a loud TV. A face filled with habitual hostility. I made my introductions. We talked on the phone yesterday, right? You asked for some help in the local library, right?
Want me to cart the stuff in? Yes. Please. Just here.
Here was a hallway area which was home to a flight of stairs and ankle deep litter. The place didn't smell too good. Back to Kurtz's last post at the far end on the Nung River.
'It smelt like slow death in there. Malaria. Nightmares. This was the end of the river alright.'
A door gave a view into the living room. More rubbish and a TV filling all the space. A woman with a vacant expression and an extra kingsize cigarette. And yes it was a game show. Of course it was a game show. It is always a game show.
Two trips with the bags and a very brief conversation. I confirmed the family would have no cash for another two weeks because the benefits are all screwed up. I said I would be along next week with more grub. She said thanks like it was a strange word on the tongue. I climbed into my van. She returned to the couch and the game show and the litter.
So dear reader. Are we going to indulge in a spot of judgement? Well, I'm not for a very simple reason. I don't know the back story. And there is always a back story. Maybe it is down to mental health or learning difficulties. Maybe it is down to childhood abuse or domestic abuse and/or both. Who can know and who can tell and who can judge?
But what about all that litter and how can you bring up young children in all that litter. How indeed? They won't die of course just like the millions of kids who grow up in the litter filled streets of Calcutta and Lagos don't die. But the odds are things won't turn out well. The classroom will become a place of embarrassment and inadequacy and it will be replaced by the comfort zone of the street. Wrong company shared. Wrong deeds committed. Drugs and cheap booze and vicious fights and community service and short term jail and all the while the world will spin and the geese will fly south to warmer places.
We can judge all we like, but there are also some pretty compelling maths going down here. The gross household income for this particular client will have been getting along for £24,000 a year. To get £24,000 net you need to earn at least £30,000 gross. Well jobs paying £30,000 a year gross are as rare as hen's teeth in this particular small Scottish town. Maybe my client took a long hard look at her career opportunities at the age of sixteen and woke up to the fact that the best living on the table meant producing five kids. Cue an explosion of rage at the counter of the Spar shop. And judgement. But would they have felt the same if my client had chosen to study law as a means to earn such a decent amount of daily bread? Even though studying law was a complete and utter pipe dream? In the dog eat dog world of Brexit Britain, my client has simply made like Philip Green and taken the best path available to maximise her personal wealth. I ain't about to judge her for it. The system that encourages her? Yeah. Right.
I followed the geese a while through a glittering autumn afternoon. I've been to New England in the Fall and I tell you what, I reckon Scotland has them on toast when it comes to drop dead gorgeous autumn-scapes. But fair enough, I'm biased.
Back to Dumfries and another family of six. Another mum and five kids. When I first carted bags of food from the back of the van for this family a year ago they were living on fresh air. They had a pretty severe benefits problem in that they weren't getting any benefits whatsoever. They had been found guilty of the crime of coming from West Africa via the EU. Cue page after page of frothing at the mouth outrage from the Daily Mail. A mother with five kids!!!!! From Africa!!!!!
For several months the local community were the only show in town and the local community came through in spades. The local community collectively told the Daily Mail to shove its dog whistle racism up its tabloid arse. The local community took to the spectacularly polite kids with the shining smiles. The local community made sure the lights and heating stayed on for most of the time through the cold days of winter. And we kept the cupboards full.
In the end the Home Office relented. Not a lot, but a bit. Now some money is coming in. About a third of what comes in for the house with the bin bags in the yard. And quite bloody right sayeth those at the counter of the Spar shop.
Compare and contrast? Well house number two is always oven ready for a Flash advert. You could spend a whole day searching for a speck of dust and you would be disappointed. The beaming kids are always scrubbed within an inch of their lives. The oldest daughter has just shot the lights out with her Higher results. Grade A's in science all the way to a degree in medicine. In a few years time she will be a doctor. I heard tell we are kind of short of those. And mum? Oh mum has it all planned out. She is at college now en route to qualifying as a primary school teacher in a few years time. And she'll make it. No doubt whatsoever about that. And she will make a bloody great primary school teacher though I don't much fancy the chance of any kid who tries it on.
I reckon the four beaming youngsters will soon be on the fast track to the kind of professions our politicians are crying out for. Just try stopping them.
It isn't about judging. But it is about compare and contrast. Two mums in Scotland 2016. Both bringing up five kids care of the State. One is on the road to nowhere. One is on the fast track to somewhere. It has nothing whatsoever to do with money. The family from Africa receives a fraction of the family from here. Instead it is all about attitude and belief. The mum from Africa is a tower of pride and strength. She would be as hard to put down as Muhammad Ali in his prime. It would be physically impossible for her to hold her head any higher. And in the years to come this family will repay the support of the community many times over.
None of this makes the first mother any worse. Somewhere along the line her spirit has been broken, probably by all the judgement. She takes what she can get and hasn't the energy to bag up all the trash.
But of course some judgement is required. And it isn't mother number one or mother number two who need judgement. It is Farage and Gove and Johnson and the Express and the Mail and all the dog whistle racist bastards who are hell bent on trying to blame everything on the family from West Africa.
Thank God we seem to be striding clear of the poison up here north of the border. The mum from Africa told me of some new jungle drums. She listened to their message and the message was 'Go North'. Cross the border. They don't hate foreigners up there. Your kids can walk home from school and be safe up there.
So she came. And she was right to come. And the community saw them through the cold of the winter when the Home Office trying to starve them out. And now they will become the kind of citizens we all crave as our population gets ever older.
So I'm not about to judge the individuals. But I'm sure as hell about to judge the lunacy of a system that encourages mother number one to sink whilst at the same time does everything possible to send mother number two somewhere else.
Somewhere far, far away.
Maybe the same place all those geese are headed for.