Having become deeply involved in the response to plans to close half of the Glasgow-area job centres, and having worked in both Bridgeton and Shettleston, I decided to find out for myself what it would actually mean to have to go from Bridgeton to Shettleston to sign on. I use public transport and I know that the Number 2 bus will take you, and I know how slow it can be as it gets held up in traffic, and how anxious this makes me about being late for meetings – meetings that I can phone or text the people I’m meeting with to let them know I might be late, and that’s fine because they can usually allow a bit of flexibility, and they know that I’m reliant on public transport and sometimes I’ll get held up. It’s just one of those things that happens from time to time, and it’s not worth getting too het up about. The worst that ever happens is that I feel a bit guilty, as I do when I’m late for anything. So that’s the bus, but what if I didn’t have the money to get me to an appointment at the new job centre? I’d have to walk, so that’s what I did. I’m not looking for hero points, but after all the comments I’ve read and catalogued from people, their dismay, their anger, their fear about these changes, I wanted to experience the reality of what these proposals mean.
So I decided to do the walk. I’m 35, and I’m robust and used to walking. I also had my phone with its satnav if I got lost. I set off from Bridgeton Job Centre Plus (when these cuts take place, as I and so many other believe they will, I look forward to a great big shiny rebrand to Job Centre Minus) and arrived at Shettleston JCP a little over 45 minutes later, which is about what the ever-helpful Google Maps (on my smartphone, which I’ve never had to pawn to be able to afford food or utilities) said it would be. I’m a quick walker anyway, and I don’t mind saying that I absolutely belted it along. I hurled myself through gaps in traffic when I needed to cross busy main roads, rarely waiting for the green man and I powered on, stopping only when I had to. At one point, early on, I took a slightly wrong turn and I found myself getting anxious that I would be late, that I was taking too long. I walked faster. When it started to rain, I was glad of my rain jacket, and for shoes that don’t have holes in them, and I kept on through the rain, past schools with the overwhelming noise of children at play, past the football stadium with its posh cars and fabulously wealthy players, with their sneers as they rev their engines at you while you cross in front of them. I’d had my usual breakfast and lots of tea so I wasn’t bothered when I went past wee shops and chippies with their smell of hot food, and if I’d been hungry I had money in my pocket. On I walked until I arrived at the doors of Shettleston job centre.
And I was a hot, sweaty, rain-lashed mess, and I looked it. And I was glad that I didn’t have to go in, didn’t have to face an overworked, stressed advisor, and justify my search for a job, any job to keep the benefit tap running for another fortnight. And I was glad that I hadn’t had to do the walk with my daughter in tow – she likes to stop to look at interesting things, and finds everything interesting, and she might’ve (would’ve) held me back, and asked me umpteen questions that would have done my head in when I’m near-sick with worry about being late. And I would have known it wouldn’t have been her fault, but I can so easily imagine losing the place with her, in my rush to be on time, to get there, to avoid a sanction.
So when somebody tells you that they can’t go to their local signing on venue and have to walk a couple of miles to the job centre, after school in the winter dark with a child, you need to understand what it is that they are telling you. What it means for that parent, for that child.
I recognised my privilege, that for me this was an optional part of my day. I recognised that that for many thousands of people in Glasgow this will soon be their fortnightly or their weekly reality, and they won’t have the luxury of spending £4.50 on a day ticket for the bus, the bus that might not get them there on time anyway, even if they can be reimbursed later on. I recognised that for me the road sign outside a school in Parkhead (picture at top) on the quickest route between the two places was nothing more than a delicious irony, rather than a mocking catcall to the people making the trek from Bridgeton to Shettleston, people who, it seems, will never be a priority for those with the power.
My greatest privilege, however, was in the fact that I didn’t have to go in, sign on and then walk home. And I was grateful.
And I was ashamed.