Unless you have a strong stomach you may want to avoid what follows.


No-one likes stubbing a toe. Anyone who has ever suffered a dislocated or fractured finger will remember the peculiarly nauseating pain.

Imagine, then, being so desperate that you tear off your own toes.

‘Neil’, a 46-year old who lives, alone, in the Hamiltonhill area of Glasgow, did it after suffering frostbite. He was visited by Ross Kemp as part of his latest Sky series, Extreme World (Episode 3).

Neil’s words appeared in subtitles as he showed Kemp around his flat. Presumably, the producers paid someone to transcribe Neil’s contribution for the benefit of the viewing audience, although Kemp seemed to understand the man well enough to conduct a relatively ‘normal’ conversation:

RK: You’ve had three heart attacks, you’ve got cirrhosis of the liver, and…

N: Five toes.

RK: You pulled your five toes off, yeah?

N: Aye.

RK: What did you do with them?

N: Well, two of them’s on top of the telly.

RK: Sorry?

N: Two of them’s on top of the telly.

RK: Two of them are on top of the telly?

(Neil limps across to the television, lifts up two brown wizened objects, the larger of which has an identifiable toenail, holds them in open palm.)

N: Aye, that’s the big toe, and that’s the wee toe I think.

RK: Alright. Let’s have a look. That’s your toe?

N: That’s my toe, aye.

RK: Oh, I can see the bone, yeah.

RK: So you just broke them off, eh?

N: Aye. There’s another one lying about somewhere.

RK: Do you not think that was probably not a very good idea?

N: No, because one of the nurses told me they were going to fall off anyway…it was so much pain I was in so I just, got drunk and went, here goes (mimes wrenching action).

RK: And you pulled your toes off?

N: Aye, and they just came off.

Reaction from Glasgow’s city fathers was typified by Stuart Patrick – the Chief Executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, as quoted by The Herald on Sept 9th:

“…It’s lazy journalism of the worst kind, is based entirely on outmoded stereotypes and sends out a dangerous message. For programmes like this to appear now, just as we’re about to launch a campaign attracting visitors to the city for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, is potentially very damaging.”

Several unnamed Glasgow-based bodies refused to co-operate with production company Tiger Aspect, having deduced that Kemp and Co weren’t planning to shoot a 45-minute homage from the top of a City Tour-bus.

Those who would condemn Neil resort to stock answers: ‘go get a job’; ‘lock them all up’; ‘let them rot’ (literally). All are predicated on the belief that Neil is guilty: it’s his fault that he was born into a massive social experiment which has gone awry; his fault that he’s alcoholic; his fault that he chooses to gamble some of his £70 weekly income on horse-racing. Everything and anything that happens to Neil is his fault. The sooner he dies, the better. Neil seems to have accepted this:

RK: What do you think is your future now, looking at where you are, and your health?

N: I think, to the end of this year.

RK: Say that again?

N: To the end of this year.

RK: To the end of this year?

N: That’s when I think I’m gonny live to.

It is undeniable that Glasgow, for many, retains a nasty reputation despite a quarter-century of concerted effort to persuade the world (and the city’s own inhabitants) otherwise.

In Glasgow – so the outmoded cliché goes – kilted cripples creep, fou, through puddles of one another’s pish and spew, desperate to score some half-decent gear, lurching into bookmakers’ shops, praying for that elusive Yankee or lucrative tip that’ll see them right for a week’s worth of Bucky and a hundred black-market fags.

Simultaneously, down in the City of London, brokers, speculators, wheelers & dealers fuel themselves with fine wines and spirits, bolstered with the best cocaine money can buy, lurching from one opening bell to the next, praying for that mammoth spike/plunge and nugget of insider knowledge to help seal the killer deal that’ll see them right for the rest of their lives.

Is one stereotype more or less offensive/accurate than the other?

Corollary: if Glasgow merits attention due to shocking examples of extreme poverty, does the opposite not apply to the hub of wealth-creation i.e. that area where UKPlc’s ‘serious’ money resides?

Would Ross Kemp and Tiger Aspect consider venturing into the capital, into isolated pockets of shocking wealth? Would they dare highlight the behaviour of some typical high-flyers from day-to-day, get right behind the scenes, monitor what these characters actually do? How boak-inducing might such detail prove to be?

Here’s an unscientific assertion: on any given working day in the UK, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., the greatest concentration of drug addicts, alcoholics, sociopaths and loose-cannons-in-general is not in Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, Belfast or Newcastle. It’s in the City of London, and more than 95% of them are ‘respectable’ citizens, largely commuters, whose only ‘connection’ with the area is whatever transport-hub disgorges them of a morning.

There is no ‘dignity’ in poverty. It’s one of the first things to go out the window after money’s gone out the door. But ‘common decency’ remains, even when poverty is poised to obliterate the final vestiges of love and respect. There are ways of treating other people which are universally acknowledged, if not precisely defined – we recognise them with no need for strictures or guidelines. Most people can look at specific actions, behaviour, and say, with confidence, ‘that’s right’, or ‘that’s wrong’.

That any individual in this ‘first-world’ society feels compelled to do what Neil did – whichever way you choose to look at it – is ‘wrong’. The man may have mental problems, be alcoholic, friendless, resigned to premature death. But the documented truth that he did such a thing to himself is a caustic damnation of those who hold that he is ‘just a scrounger’ who deserves nothing better.

Lest we forget – Neil was once a baby, born into a grand new scheme, one of many post-war projects undertaken in tandem with the creation of a National Health Service. Perhaps it was Utopian. Perhaps it was misguided. Perhaps it was always doomed. But there must have been a time when Neil’s mother, father, or siblings played that game, the one we all do with the wee ones, squeezing perfect, tiny toes, repeating the old, old lines, starting with ‘This little piggy went to market,’.

Outside Neil’s flat, one of the few remaining properties occupied in the area, Kemp summarised:

“I feel that no-one, really, should be living like that. I mean, he said, you know, we were the first people who he’d really spoken to in a week, and if anybody does come to see him they knock, see if he’s okay, and then leave. I mean, they don’t even go into the flat. He says ‘can you blame them?’ and I have to say no, not really…

He’s just waiting to die, and there may be people watching this programme that have judged him and said, you know, that man has got what he deserves, you know, he’s ended up where he deserves to be. I personally think that no-one, in this day and age, should be living like that.”

But many are, right now. And it’s about to get much worse. More cuts are imminent – the forms have been printed, staff trained, i’s dotted, t’s crossed. Those with advance knowledge are warning their families and neighbours, all across the country – the effects will start to bite before this winter is over.

By that time, Neil may well be dead. No matter, some will say – no big loss. Others will maintain that his is an exceptional case highlighted for cynical ends. But for many, the story of Neil, his frostbitten toes and utter loneliness, will long linger among our guiltiest, most shameful memories – a nightmarish indictment of a society that, somewhere between the market and home, tore out its own heart.