From the Back of Beyond – The Vole Squeaks

Now my burrow at the back of Stromness is not the warmest in the island and despite the season being pretty mild, this is the time of year that even the stoutest vole begins to lose weight. Last week, I was chatting with my neighbour, the hogboon from Burnside who has always supported the Lib Dems. ‘They stick up for Orkney folks,’ he says. ‘Jo Grimond is a fine man.’ I reminded him that Auld Grimmers is long dead now. I know him fine because he sometimes pops over from the Firth Kirkyard when he feels restless about the present state of his party. The Hogboon replied I was just being cheeky. I snorted something about them getting in bed with the Tories and off Wee Hoggers went in the poots. He came back about an hour later with a press release from Carmichael; “The coalition agreement with the Conservatives …. is a case of constructing a government which will be strong enough to oversee the reconstruction of our economy in a way that is fair and sustainable. We have done that with the only party that was prepared to do so seriously. “

‘That sounds good.’ I said, ‘That will be why there are so many volunteer opportunities at the food bank?’ ‘Glad you mentioned that,’ replied Hoggers, ‘Mr Carmichael said that our welfare benefits system is “fantastic”.’ I focused my wee eye on him and tried to suppress my sneezing. Once I got on the new scarf Hoggers got me from Cat Protection (I never go in there myself, of course, Moxie always gives me the eye), I asked if the number of folk making withdrawals from the food bank had anything to do with this ‘fantastic’ benefits system. More than twice the number last year they said.

The hogboon shuffled through his papers and found a clipping from a newspaper. He put on his borrowed specs and began to read out, ‘Mr Carmichael was asked if there was a link between sanctions and an increase in people going to food banks for help. He said: “I think there may well be, because sanctions are normally the result of the conduct of the claimant themselves. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was the case.” ‘ The Hogboon said, ‘I suppose it’s always good for people to rely on charity. We are all in it together, and as my man said, ‘The rich are paying their fair share.’ I thought it kindest not to point out that most folk are referred there nowadays because the system is so slow it can leave folk with no income at all for weeks at a time. Hoggers had suffered enough.

I nodded to myself and tried to stuff some more rags in the burrow door to keep out the draft. Maybe next week I will put the fire on for an hour or two. I will like that. The Hogboon looked at the cold hearth – ‘Well’, he said, ‘at least you will be glad of the fuel rebate and Mr Carmichael has called for an investigation into heating oil prices. I nodded my head in agreement, ‘I am very glad that the £24 reduction means my bill is only going up this year by £340. The Hogboon smiled, ‘Most people in Orkney are fine. It is only 46% of us who live in fuel poverty. Those new housing association houses are grand, much more efficient; it’s only 36% of them’. I looked out of my window at the orange glow over the flare. ‘Don’t you get a nice view of Flotta from here?’ ‘Ye’re right, Beuy,’ he said, ‘Now, eat some cereal. Better Together.’

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