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The man is sobbing into filthy, scarred hands, a terrible sound, his body heaving. He is sitting on a plastic chair inside a cramped Portacabin on the edge of a town-centre car park, surrounded by empty crates.
“When did you last eat?” asks Dennis Spicer, a 77-year-old volunteer, handing him a cheese sandwich and a polystyrene cup of hot tea. The man starts eating the sandwich immediately but his hands are shaking too much to hold the tea.
“I don’t know. Days ago. My money was cut off 10 days ago.”
“What happened to your face?”
The man’s fingers flutter towards the bloody line across his hollow cheek. “Self-harming,” he says. “I was going to kill myself. But I came here.”
The emergency food given to the man in that tiny foodbank in a Staffordshire market town is just one box of 1.2million handed out in a year now by the Trussell Trust, according to shocking figures. The charity is now giving out around 10million meals a year in the UK, the sixth richest country in the world.
As Tory austerity continues to tighten the screw, the figures show a 6.64% surge in help given to families struggling with low wages, high living costs and welfare cuts, including the government’s flagship Universal Credit programme.
Left 10am, walked to Stourbridge, took bus to Wolverhampton, wandered about slummy parts of Wolverhampton for a while, then had lunch and walked 10 miles to Penkridge. Wolverhampton seems a frightful place. Everywhere vistas of mean little houses still enveloped in drifting smoke, though this was Sunday, and along the railway line huge banks of clay and conical chimneys (pot-banks). Walk from W’ton to Penkridge very dull and raining all the way. Villa-civilization stretches almost unbroken between the two towns.
The Mirror is looking at the human cost of austerity through our Wigan Pier Project – retracing George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier on the anniversary of its publication in 1937.
In our journey so far – and over four years of the Real Britain column – we have been to scores of foodbanks but today’s, in Staffordshire, is the most harrowing we’ve visited.
Despite being one of the country’s smallest foodbanks, in a market town in an area designated as having outstanding natural beauty, the queue has been around the block all day, with many people in a state of total destitution.
In February 1936, the future writer of 1984 and Animal Farm stopped in Staffordshire on his way to discover the industrial North for The Road to Wigan Pier. Had he stopped here eight decades on, Orwell might have found the man with the scarred face, and he might have met another foodbank user, Martin Pearson, who tells us he has nothing to eat until he next gets paid in three days’ time.
Martin is a Gulf War veteran. Now, as a civilian, like 900,000 other workers in the UK in 2017, he is on a zero-hours contract. And, like one in eight modern British workers, he is struggling to survive despite being in work.
The best thing one can say for the pottery towns is that they are fairly small and stop abruptly. Less than 10 miles away you can stand in undefiled country, on the almost naked hills, and the pottery towns are only a smudge in the distance.
Like Orwell, Martin is on foot. He can’t buy a bus pass when he doesn’t know what hours he’ll get each week. When he gets work he sets off at 4am and walks the seven miles to the plastic-moulding factory to arrive by 6am. “It’s hard in winter, or now when it’s raining,” he says. “After working all day, I’m knackered on the way home.”
He sends some of his wages to his son and any food he gets he shares with his dog. This week his shifts have been cut by the agency. “It feels wrong that I’m 50 and I’ve worked since I was 16 and I still can’t always feed myself,” he says.
He served 15 years in the armed forces yet there is no protection for grafters like him, forced to rely on charity. Orwell saw the same happening to working-class men who had fought in the First World War.
He also told in his Wigan Pier diary of the many people he met who were unable to survive on poor relief, or to convince the Means Test they needed help. Today, we have a welfare state, and yet 80 years on we hear from another man called Martin, a qualified engineer, who worked for 37 years before needing a foodbank.
Made redundant just as he separated from his partner, he is one of the unlucky people forced to apply for Universal Credit. The benefit has a cruel twist – you get nothing for the first six weeks.
“I’ve been a qualified engineer for 37 years,” Martin says. “Never signed on the dole, never been in debt. At the age of 52, I’ve struggled to get a new job. I applied for Universal Credit and was told I would have to wait for at least six to eight weeks before I received any money. Who can live on nothing for two months?
“Without the foodbank I honestly don’t know where I’d be. I was living on nothing. I did get very depressed and distressed but the people at the foodbank pulled me out of the mire.”
Martin has now started volunteering at his local foodbank to try to help others in the same situation.
Heavy rain is falling. We double back to Penkridge where the ‘frouzy’ teashop where Orwell escaped the weather is now a bakery. Across the road, inside Dickens of a Teashop, Ian and Joanne Marston are serving up egg and chips. Ian, 60, was a foundryman for decades but says local industry is dying. Joanne, 50, had a grandmother who was in service. They talk about the pace of change, 200 new houses being built in a town that was once just three families and now has over 12,000 souls.
At Penkridge Market we find auctioneer Mike Williams, 66, the third generation of his family to run the market, which is now the only one left in the area. “Penkridge has changed a lot since Mr Orwell was here,” he says dryly. “I’m not sure he’d recognise it. The old way of life is changing.”
Mr Williams is auctioning duck eggs because poultry restrictions due to bird flu mean there is no livestock, a reminder of the permanent wounds foot and mouth disease inflicted here. A once-thriving agricultural area has become a dormitory town.
Back at the Trussell Trust Portcabin foodbank, Martin has gone but the man with the cut face is still sitting on the plastic chair. Acts of quiet kindness are taking place around him as Dennis, a retired social worker, almost 80, speaks softly into his mobile.
The man sips another cup of tea. “I used to be a railway engineer,” he tells me. “Before I got ill. Now I’m in this place where I think, ‘Shall I kill myself or go stealing?’ That’s the two options I’ve got left.”
He shows me the paperwork that shows he’s fit for work despite severe mental-health problems. “I’m going through mandatory reconsideration so I’ve nothing to eat for three weeks until then,” he says. “I’ve moved house and I’ve no money to get to the pharmacy for my prescription so I’ve gone really bad. My electricity’s cut off. I’ve been lying on my bed freezing, too scared to leave the house.”
Dennis pushes a button on his mobile. “I’ve got you a doctor’s appointment,” he says. “I’ll take you there myself in a minute. We’ll give you some food.” He looks at the man’s address, as he sobs again into his hands. “I know that place. It’s not a good place. We need to find you somewhere better to live.”
Just as Orwell found… extraordinary acts of kindness against the organised brutality of the state.
If you live in any of the places mentioned in the Wigan Pier Project and have a story to share, please get in touch.
You can contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org tweet us at @WiganPier80 or write to Wigan Pier Project, Daily Mirror, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5AP
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