Sometimes a day in the First Base Agency can feel long. Yesterday was like that. One after another they came and went. The unnoticed and unremarkable victims of the nasty, penny pinching changes that are tipping the lives of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens on their heads. It is hard not to feel helpless and sick to the stomach. It is hard sometimes not to feel like chucking it all in a doing something else.
Instead I stand there behind the counter and listen to the stories of those who come in for a bag of food to feed themselves for three days. And sure, a bag of food is of great help to someone who hasn’t got any and doesn’t have the wherewithal to buy any. But it is the most temporary of fixes. In a way it reminds me of that scene in Apocalypse Now when the young guys on the patrol boat lose the plot and kill a bunch of civilians leaving only a fatally injured infant breathing. Then they frantically radio for medical help. Martin Sheen’s jaded voice over is all cynical logic.
“It's a way we had over here for living with ourselves. We cut 'em in half with a machine gun and give 'em a Band-Aid. It was a lie.”
I never thought I would see the day when people in
be treated with such a casual cruelty. And of course this isn’t a drag them
from their beds at three in the morning and beat the living daylights out them
in a police cell cruelty. Thankfully that kind of stuff is still the way of the
Iranian and Syrian governments rather than Britain . Westminster
The new cruelty is more insidious. In a way it is more cowardly. Yesterday I was reminded of the extraordinary title of a book written by Hannah Arendt in 1963. The year before Hannah sat through every day of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in
Eichmann was one of Hitler’s beaurocrats. He was given the task of administrating
the Final Solution to the problem of what to do with five million European
Jews. He never switched the switch to fill a gas chamber with Zyclon B. Instead
he organised the railway schedules and the architects’ plans for the most
efficient crematoria and he scheduled the work rotas for the SS camp guards.
After the war he assumed a false identity and escaped to Jerusalem where
he melted himself into the non descript suburban life of lowly clerk. Argentina
After fifteen years the Israelis found him, kidnapped him and shipped him back to stand trial for his crimes against humanity. They duly found him guilty and executed him. They put his ashes on a plane and emptied them out over the Mediterranean: they didn’t want a trace of him to pollute and contaminate the soil of
As Hannah watched him in the dock she was stuck by his sheer ordinariness. There he is, at the top of the page. No trace of the so called Aryan superman is there? Just a beaurocrat who did as he was told.
To the letter.
With complete and utter efficiency.
And he displayed not a shred of remorse. After all, he had simply followed his orders. I haven’t read Hannah’s book, but I have always been chilled by the simple brilliance of the title.
‘The Banality of Evil.’
Yesterday I had a sense of something similar. People who were stunned at how brutally they are suddenly being treated. Why? They had never done anything wrong. They had never broken any laws. They had played by the rules and done their best. All they had done was to become sick or lose their jobs. And suddenly beaurocrats in far away
office were punishing them. Making
their lives all but impossible to live. Of course these self same beaurocrats
will never have to see the impact of what they are doing face to face, just
like Eichmann never took a look around Whitehall Auschwitz.
They simply balance their books and keep their ledgers. And of course when
asked, they will confirm that they are simply following orders. Cutting the
deficit and the hell with the human costs. The hell with any semblance of
So how does it play out?
Here’s an example from yesterday. A case study. And in the end that is all I can think of to do about any of this apart from handing over a bag with three days worth of eating. Keep a record. Write it down. Send it out into the ether. Try and give these victims a voice.
My case study has been a regular over the last few months. He’s about 55 and once upon a time he was a coal miner. Well we all know what happened to miners in the late eighties. They were deemed surplus to requirements and rendered obsolete. Over the last twenty five years he has managed to get bits and pieces of work, but the town where he lives only ever existed for coal. Some moved away when the pit was closed. He stayed. And he has stayed in the same house for over thirty years. It isn’t a big house: two bedrooms. But it has a garden and gardening is his passion. For thirty years he has worked his garden and he is proud of it. Now he is unemployed again and his chances of work are beyond minimal. It wasn’t really his fault that he was born in a small Scottish town that had only ever existed to produce coal. It was the luck of the draw. Maybe he can be blamed for not smelling the coffee and upping sticks for pastures new. Maybe. Now he lives on his £65 a week Jobseekers Allowance and his rent and rates are paid by Housing Benefit.
And it’s hard.
No matter he cuts back he just can’t get his electric/gas bill under £30 a week. Which leaves £35 for everything else. Every fortnight he has to find £10 to take the bus to
sign on. So that leaves £30 for everything else. He is a law abiding guy, so he
keeps up with his TV licence payments. Which leaves £27 for everything else.
And he is finding it really, really hard to manage, but he is managing. Just.
But on April 1 his life is about to become impossible. He has a monumental problem and it is heading down the tracks at him like a high speed train. His problem is that the house he has lived in for the last thirty years has two bedrooms. And he is only one person. Which means that he is about to become victim of the new ‘Bedroom Tax’. Which in his case will be £20 a week.
Right now he ekes out his existence on £27 a week after keeping the lights on and it is really, really hard.
On April 1 he will have to eke out a living on £7 a week after keeping the lights on. Which of course is impossible.
His options? Not great.
In theory he could ask for a transfer to a one bedroom flat and give up his garden and home of thirty years. The trouble is that there are no one bedroom flats to move into.
Alternatively he could take in a lodger.
Think about it. You are 55 and you live on your own in a small two up and two down house and all of a sudden you have a complete stranger sharing the bathroom and kitchen and lounge. And all for £20 a week. I have no doubt that the distant beaurocrats who have made this decision will see £20 a week as loose change. Money for Tall Lattes from Starbucks on the walk in to work.
The truth is that £20 is 75% of the disposable income after power costs for my ex coal miner and endless others.
It is cruel and unacceptable and unnoticed. It is happening behind hundreds of thousands of closed doors and it is happening to decent, ordinary people who have never done anything wrong.
Like you say Hannah, it is the very banality of evil.