I work part time in Dundee, helping carers. Mostly, I meet individuals face to face. I listen to what they tell me, to try to find out what’s worrying people, and if there’s anything I can do to make it easier for them to cope and feel better. It is interesting, varied work, and I hear a lot about the kinds of things which make a person feel happy or anxious.

In trying to help people, walking side by side with them to get to a better place in their lives, I’m always conscious of my own journey. In a few days, I will be 60 years old. That’s long enough to have seen a lot of changes in my life, in Dundee, and in the world.

Dundee is a small city, with its’ own character: scrappy, cheeky, and kind. A beautiful place on the banks of the River Tay, it has long been a working class city. You can still see huge former jute mills where many Dundonians once worked on long shifts. Now those buildings are converted into flats. All the big engineering companies which took over from jute as the major employer have vanished. The port remains, but there’s no shipbuilding, which was also once a big employer.  

From 1820 to around 1900, the population of Dundee grew from 20,000 to around 160,000. It kept growing, but slower, so that by 1940, there were 178,000 people. That was about the population from the 1940s right through to the mid-1970s. I left school in 1979, when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. During her regime, factories closed, and the Dundee population plummeted by 40,000. It has recovered, but only by around half of this figure.

Sometimes, big changes are noticed only in little ways. When I first went out with friends to pubs and discos, in the early 1980s, I remember most places were packed full of people. In my blue velvet jacket, I felt as if I was a part of a big vibrant city, not a small place. Within a few years, I remember going out to some of the same pubs and discos and noticing – there were a lot less people. By the end of the 1980s, I wondered where everyone had gone. I didn’t know I was living through a mass exodus of Scots leaving to look for work in London, Australia, Canada, or America.

The character of Dundee has changed. It is still as scrappy and creative and as kind as ever, but poverty has settled into many streets and homes, an unwanted guest and hard to get rid of, and along with the poverty – anxiety has settled uncomfortably into our lives.

When I speak to people who have their own individual fears and worries, they all mention changes in the city partly shaping the way they feel about themselves. People of my generation notice the changes I’ve mentioned, and we also remember the battles we fought along the way: like supporting the miners in 1984 to 1985, when I saw generous donations put into Fife miners’ collection buckets by low-income pensioners and workers. Then, there was the year-long Timex strike of 1993; the mass non-payment campaign against the poll tax which defeated Thatcher; and the widespread hope around the 2014 grassroots Scottish Independence movement.

Young people notice other changes. A man in his early 30s recently told me he missed internet cafes and the camaraderie of groups of games players, who are now isolated individuals, playing online games at home. Teenagers speak about how their world changed dramatically when Covid brought uncertainty and fear, as if a war had arrived, out of nowhere. The empty streets were like something out of a zombie film.

If you were making an accurate documentary about Dundee, then the themes of change, uncertainty and struggle would all feature. There were also big changes in the look of the city. A gleaming shopping centre called the Overgate Centre was built to replace a 1970s concrete monster. The new centre is busy, but inside the city’s other big shopping centre, the Wellgate, many of the units are now closed. And hidden away near the city centre, there’s a smaller shopping centre which is almost wholly made up of closed units.

Along the waterfront, it looks different. There’s the huge V&A gallery, and beside it – Captain Scott’s ship The Discovery floating in a small dock. Across the road, you can see the sparkling entrance to Dundee’s’ renovated railway station; and there are a few new office blocks. It looks as if it’s a city which is growing wealthier – the opposite of what is actually happening in every housing estate. There, in the places where most Dundonians live – poverty, anxiety, and uncertainty are growing. Visitors entering the city from the station or driving past new buildings on the waterfront might not realise that Dundee relies on foodbanks and one in three children are living in poverty.  

Despite the challenges we face, the strength of Dundee is alive and well in the ongoing battles by ordinary people to survive and to bounce back from hard blows. There are strikes and protests by rail workers, posties, University staff, care workers, teachers and others on the issues of wages, pensions, and cutbacks. And there’s still a healthy fighting spirit whenever local or national officials say nothing can be done. By fighting back against that tired old lie, Dundonians saved Lochee Health Centre from closure and pushed for a 24-hour crisis centre to be opened. These successful battles remind me of something I read about – that the first public nursery provision in Britain grew out of a strike by jute workers in Dundee, early last century.  All the best things are fought for by ordinary people.

Politics and History – these seem to be the private property of powerful people, far away from our daily lives, most of the time. Our electricity bills go up, prices in the shops go up, and politicians pontificate on our TV screens about why it’s all inevitable. They sound as if they know what will happen and what must happen. Yet, when we fight back, because we have to, we take back pieces of Politics and History and make them our own. In a strike, in an election, or in the way we talk to each other, with phrases like: “We can’t go on like this”. Sometimes we surprise ourselves by our own decisions “to do something”. And then, we may be surprised at how much we can do. From attending a cost of living protest, to volunteering to help at a Foodbank, to challenging a Tory Minister to debate his vile benefit cuts. I did that challenge thing once. I wouldn’t now. I don’t debate with war criminals, and I see the last decade or more as a war against the poor and against the working class. War is a word I don’t use easily. But I’ve learned it’s the right word. I’ve seen too many casualties, too many deaths, to give our times any softer description.

I’ve often thought that people like me, ordinary people, who work when we can, who pay bills and laugh and cry and celebrate through life’s milestones, we’re told all our lives that we are not important, that what we think and do is largely irrelevant to what happens in the world. How often do you feel amazed when some TV drama or documentary shows you how important you really are? When you see you a bit of reality shared with millions of people: a queue at a foodbank, a young man conquering drug addiction supported by the love and care of others, or a woman facing racism who rallies her community in a courageous fightback. For a day or so, we all say: “Did you see that programme? That was great.” And then, for a longer time, there’s little or nothing on TV to reflect who we are and how important our lives really are.

Of course, we can always switch off the TV and read a book and talk to each other about who we are and what we can do. We can fight back in many different ways. And perhaps just as importantly, we need to leave behind any feelings that we are not important, or that we haven’t done ‘enough’. If we have learned how to survive, how to be kind to others, and how to protect and care for our families and for others, then we are important. If we have fought and we are fighting on the side of the working class, and on the side of all who have been wronged, then we are important. If we have sung or painted, acted, played a sport or written in some way that gave hope and joy to others, then we are important. And when we are young, from the moment our eyes open to a vast and beautiful world, we are important because our innocence is the purest reflection of the way the world should be.

We become stronger every time we celebrate the infinite potential of human beings to save the world and make it a better place for all.

Harvey Duke

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