First Base. A foodbank in the small town of Dumfries in the South West of Scotland. I guess we are pretty far from the madding crowd. At night, the winter skies sparkle with stars. When we breathe, the air hits our lungs like it's come straight out of an oxgyen tank. We barely have traffic lights. The hills which look down on us give off an air of seen it all before.
Nothing much happens here to trouble the evening news. Does this mean we are one of those 'left behind' places? Not really. We were never really anywhere much in the first place. Like Paul Newman once said in 'Cool Hand Luke', "Ah you know... small towns... nothing much happens in the evenings ... I guess mainly we're just settling old scores."
Yet a food bank in a small town can be a place where you can see the world we live in every bit as clearly as we can see the vast unpoluted night skies above us. The good and the bad. The hopeful and the hopeless. The reasons for cheer and the reasons for weary despair. All of it. The full spectrum.
All of it played out over the course of two days in a food bank in a small Scottish town.
Our peeling walls provide a back drop for hundreds of micro dramas. Mini tragedies. Unnoticed lives tossed onto an ever growing refuse heap. And yet every now and then the very same peeling walls witness spectacular generosity. Moments of inspiration. Moments of genuine hope.
So I'll start with the upside. The picture at the top of the page.
You know what, if this world of ours was filled with people like Daisy it would be a better place. A million times better. We first met Daisy five years ago. I guess she must have been six at the time. She came in with her mum on a cold day in November. She had watched the news one night and been moved by stories about people with nowhere to live and nothing to eat. She wanted to do something. To make things better. Especially for children whose lives were so much harder than her life.
But what can you do when you are six years old? When you live in a quiet Scottish town far away from the evening news? Simple. You do what you can. And Daisy did what she could. She did everything in her power. Every week she put away her pocket money and when the time was right, she bought advent calendars. For children who wouldn't be getting an advent calendar. For children who wouldn't be getting much at all. The children she had seen on the news.
And she brought the advent calendars into First Base.
Yesterday she came in to us again. For the fifth year in a row. And our peeling walls smiled down at the latest version of Daisy. And when you see someone with a heart the size of Daisy's heart, it is impossible not to imagine pictures of how the world could be if everyone had a heart the size of Daisy's heart.
It would be quite a place. A different place. A better place. A place where everyone looks at the problems of our world and makes a simple, straight forward decision. I want to make things better. How? I will do what I can. Like Daisy.
I think the word is inspirational, don't you?
But for every shaft of sunlight there are vast banks of clouds. Not particularly stormy and dramatic. Just grey. Just soul draining.
There has been an easily recognised common thread over the last couple of days. In the food bank. In front of the back drop of peeling walls. Muffled figures with pale faces. Troubled eyes. Insecurity. Fear. Broken minds.
Let's go back a bit. Our first seven years. The world before the so called Welfare Reforms. Pre austerity times. It suddenly seems a long time ago.
There was a prevailing pragmatism which nobody actually admitted to, but everyone signed up to. It went something like this. There is always a percentage of the population who lack the mental tools to make it. Once upon a time we found places for them. The lad on the factory floor who swept up. The lad on the farm who helped out. The girl in the hair dressers who made the tea and did the odds and sods. And when there was an annual outing, they would be a part of it. And when there was a Christmas Party, they would be there with everyone else. And of course they had no need of benefits. They were on the payroll. They were a part of things. They had their place.
Once. And then the world moved on and productivity targets meant no more passengers. High paid fat trimmers made such roles redundant. Mechanisation rendered them obselete. And one by one, they were nudged out of things. By accident rather than design, the State got it. Figured it out. Saw the need to be pragmatic. And so it was those whose brains were not quite right for the modern world were quietly signed onto the sick. Fair enough, they didn't exactly live high on the hog. But at least they could just about get by. It wasn't great. But it kind of worked. Kind of.
Until it stopped. Until the decision was taken to completely ignore the opinions of GP's and psychologists. Until new assessments were created to deem everyone to be fit for work. Until complicated new online forms became the only road to having a penny to your name.
The cruelty of the new order is as cold as cruelty gets. It takes people who are already a bit broken and it breaks them some more. It makes demands they haven't a hope in hell of meeting. If you can barely read and write, how on earth can you nail a Universal Credit form in one go? How can you make your online case for help when you don't even know how to switch a computer on? How can you spend thirty hours a week filling in online applications for jobs you cannot possibly do when you can't even use a keyboard?
You can't. Of course you can't. And suddenly there are no more payments. And suddenly you were getting letters talking about eviction. And suddenly there is no money on the meter and the cupboards are empty. And the stress in your head morphs and spreads and grows. And the only solution to each new problem is yet another form which needs filling in with words you do not own.
And broken people become shattered people. And they come to us. To our peeling walls.
And what can we do? We can give them a bag of food. We can do our bit to keep body and soul together. We can do our best to help them to find a brave face. We do what we can, but let's be honest, it barely scratches the surface. And there are so many of these guys.
Here's a handful from the last few days. There's the lad we've been seeing for fifteen years now. Never the sharpest tool in the box. Once upon a time, the neighbours might have deemed him to be a bit slow. Perfect fodder for the playground bullies. No chance of keeping up in the classroom. He drifted into the arms of those who can smell vulnerabilty from a mile away. Heroin. A downward spiral. Until one day he was beaten all the way to gates of death. And his already struggling brain was rendered all but obselete.
He's never had a job. Could he actually do a job? It is hard to think of one. But maybe that is just me. Because the the powers that be have decided he's tip top. Locked and loaded. Ready and raring for work. Expected to abide by the demands of job seeking. And of course the powers that be know better than his GP and his psychologist. They have decided he needs a short, sharp shock. A kick up the backside. So they have taken everything away. Every penny. All of it. They have decided to break him for good.
Is this deliberate? Of course not. It is a crazy game which looks good on paper and falls apart in the cold reality of the real world. It is a pipe dream concocted by people living easy lives who choose to believe everyone is shirking. Pretenting. Fabricating. Cheating.
There was the lady with eyes layered with trauma. Unable to stand still. Unable to make any kind of eye contact. Unable to to say yes to the offer of coffee. Or tea. A back story to chill the bones. Hints of the very darkest of dark corners. Half finished sentences. But never whole sentences. Because to complete the sentence would mean going all the way back to the nightmare. Of being locked in a room and injected with heroin. Of visitors to the room. Male visitors. So many....
Sentences never finished, but her eyes tell the story. Her GP tries to cover the nightmares with thick blankets of medication. And she can read and write and count. She just can't do people. She just can't force herself to leave her flat for days on end. She just can't get on top of the fear which has sunk right down into the marrow of her bones.
There is the lady who was raped a few months ago. Suddenly unable to face a world which has changed forever. There are no sections in the forms she has filled in which cover the terrors. Can you walk up stairs? Can you get out of the bath on your own? Can you lift your arms above the level of your shoulders? Well there we are then. You're fine. You're good to go. Stiff upper lip old girl. Crack on.
So many broken people. And a system hell bent on breaking them some more. So called tough love. Aye right. Policies knocked together by idiots to meet promises made by idiots. And in the long run, breaking already broken people will cost us all countless billions but who gives a shit when all is said and done. Just so long as the Daily Mail is happy, right?
And in the mean time hundreds of thousands of people are being quietly tossed onto an ever growing scrapheap.
It is the world on the other side of the mirror to Daisy's world. A cold world. A brutal world. A world of forms. A world where quiet cruelty is doled out far from the public view. A world where hurting the vulnerable might just net a few votes in some marginal seat in the West Midlands.
And at times it is hard not to feel overwhelmed by it all. What will happen if things carry on like this? When the real winter sets in?
Time to go back to Monday morning. Still dark outside. A coffee and the online news. Check the e mails.