Cold Death in Glasgow is a bit of a moral tale about looking after the poor in our contemporary cities. I don’t know what it really is like in Glasgow, but I’ve worked with the homeless in my own town with less than half the population. The most shocking thing beyond the mere statistics is that council housing departments are not even legally obliged to try to find homes for single adults without special vulnerabilities. Glasgow council’s minimum legal obligation as stated on their website is to provide temporary (overnight) accommodation and ‘help and advice’.

Generally speaking, it is taken for granted that a percentage of the population will ALWAYS be homeless and fit, healthy homeless people without underage dependents are expected to fend for themselves. I don’t know long it takes living rough before a fit, healthy person develops either physical or mental illnesses that makes them vulnerable, but at that point it is probably too late.

This is the harsh reality in the Britain where Nigella’s personal assistants can run up credit card bills of over £70,000 on frivolities, members of parliament are awarding themselves a pay rise that is higher than the annual state pension for a single person and Cheryl Cole spends more money getting her rear tattooed than people on minimum wage have to spend on food. One day some real inequalities have to be addressed in this country.

Meanwhile a few hardworking volunteers do the job the government and local authorities fail to do. They provide night shelters and drive around bringing flasks of soup and tea to people sleeping rough. They try to remember the names of the homeless and notice if they haven’t been around for a while. Some do it because they are attached to religious organisations like the Salvation Army or the Society of St. Vincent De Paul and believe it is a Christian duty. Others do it simply out of duty to those less well off.

Miss Lipton represents those people. Owen Harper represents the ordinary man in the street who walks past the homeless and says things like ‘they all have homes, really. It’s just a scam’. Scams do exist. The people who distribute those flasks of soup are always careful not to carry money and credit cards and always go in groups, because even they can be taken advantage of, but there is real, genuine need, too. Knowing the difference is something ordinary people rarely have the time to learn.

Anyway, I keep falling back into a rant here, though perhaps I shouldn’t apologise for it. These things need saying.

The science fiction element of the story came from the problems I was having at the time of writing with my fridge freezer. It was equipped with a digital thermometer that showed the temperature of both fridge and freezer, but there was something wrong with both sections and the fridge hovered between three and eight degrees. It was usually colder than that in the actual kitchen. The freezer was invariably about minus two degrees dropping to about minus six then creeping up again. This was useless for long term storage of ANY food and eventually I had to buy a new one. Meanwhile I found out quite a bit about the temperature at which food properly freezes solid and will keep until defrosted – anywhere else but my fridge freezer.

As a doctor and scientist, Owen almost certainly would know that pure alcohol, also known as ethanol-alcohol, freezes at -114 °C, over one hundred degrees lower than water and considerably lower than beef burgers. Cheap white cider, however, has quite a bit of water in it as well as alcohol and whatever else goes into the vile stuff, so it probably freezes somewhere closer to 0 °C than the pure alcohol found in medical supply cabinets. Even so, the fact that the cider was still liquid is relevant. The old man, Aberdeen Angus, has obviously been killed by something not of this Earth. The death is within the Torchwood remit.

The final showdown with the alien is mostly told in retrospect by Dougal after he defeated it by allowing it to take over his body and then setting it alight – a desperate solution to a desperate situation. He makes the point that the alien sees the destitute humans as expendable, the final moral point of the story. NO Human being is surplus to requirements. Nobody is expendable. In Doctor Who that point is sometimes subtly made, sometimes with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but it is the principle The Doctor lives by. It ought to be the principle Torchwood lives by, too, and all of us, otherwise, as the Ghost of Christmas Present points out to Scrooge, we might find that WE are the surplus humanity.

The first victim of the alien, Aberdeen Angus, is loosely based on a homeless man I knew of some twenty years back who lived rough in the streets of Preston. He was known as Dublin Dennis, real name Dennis Glennon. I didn’t know him WELL. I used to find him a little bit repulsive, it has to be said. He always had mucus from a runny nose in his beard, which is quite horrible to look at. But I did give him money when I could and sometimes talked to him about Ireland. He was regarded by most people as a nuisance and by some as a ‘colourful character’. After his death, the latter paid for a memorial plaque on a seat in a public garden in Preston. I’m not sure what that says about this city. The same people probably help support the shelters and other help for the homeless, so perhaps we can be satisfied that we’re trying. Hopefully in Glasgow and Cardiff and other cities other people will continue to do the same until we get a government committed to doing something about homelessness.

http://www.glasgow.gov.uk/index.aspx?articleid=3282

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anderston
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broomielaw