MARK FRANKLAND

I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

THE THRILLING STORY OF THE MOST EXPENSIVE PACK OF SLICED CHEESE IN THE HISTORY OF MANKIND

So, we hear an awful lot about austerity. We hear about austerity pretty much all of the time. Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, Greens, Plaid, Momentum.... everyone's at it. And the narrative is nice and simple. It's served up in bite size pieces. Austerity is wicked and bad. And the Tories are wicked and bad for depriving our public services of their life blood. And it's kind of hard not swallow the bite size pieces without thinking very much about it.

Of course a food bank like First Base is as good a place as any to get an up close and personal look at the damage rampant austerity causes. Obviously. I have penned umpteen blogs over the last few years painting pictures of lives wrecked for the sake of saving a lousy few quid. However a working in a food bank also paints another equally compelling picture - the abject idiocy of those given the job of spending the public pound. And I never cease to be amazed by just how much of a pass we always seem to give these guys as they waste our money on an industrial scale.

In all the recent rampant furore surrounding the Windrush scandal and Amber Rudd's resignation, we saw a classic case of this. Rudd told a Select Committee there were no Home Office targets to deport people. Then a pissed off Home Office lackey started leaking enough killer facts to make her fall on her sword. Most damning was a letter she sent to Theresa May boasting of how an additional £10 million spent would up the annual deportation figures by 10%. Ah-ha! Gotcha! To get a 10% increase means you have to have a target in the first place. Bang to rights and off she popped to the back benches.

And of course nobody did the maths. Before the £10 million cash injection, the Home Office was turfing out 10,800 undocumented immigrants a year. The extra cash would up the game to the tune of 10%. Yeah? As in an extra 1080 deportations per annum. So lets do the maths.

£10,000,000 divided by 1080 is.......

Drumroll.....

£9259

Turfing these people out at a cost of nearly ten grand each was deemed to be something to crow about. Well obviously it was, because God forbid if they were allowed to stay they would get jobs and pay taxes and.....

Is this a good way for the public sector to spend your taxes? Well I guess the answer to that depends on how much you hate immigrants. Nigel Farage would no doubt see it as cheap at half the price. Me? Not so much.

Time to cut to the chase. Time for an example of wasted public money which borders on the truly epic.

It's time to tell the story of Danny. Who isn't really called Danny by the way.

On the cover of his autobiography, the strapline under the title might run something along the lines of 'A modern day tale of woe'. Or 'How laying some laminate flooring can come back to haunt you.'

For fifty something years Danny's story was nothing to write home about. It was the story of a regular guy who got born, went to school, worked away and generally lived a regulation life.

And then he lost his job, and didn't walk straight into another job. At fifty something, it was his first taste of being on the brew. It didn't go so well. Within a matter of weeks he was sanctioned for being ten minutes late for an appointment and a piece of paper brought him into First Base for his first food parcel. He was philosophical about things. He always is to be fair. He served out his one month sanction and I kind of figured we wouldn't see him again.

How wrong I was.

Within a couple of weeks he was back with us on a three month sanction and he has now been sanctioned on a more or less permanent basis for the last five years.

Not surprisingly things have slipped. At times he allows some bitterness to float to the surface. But not often. He has a remarkable ability to take things in his stride. I could rattle on for paragraph after paragraph about the various disasters he has had to roll with. Instead I'll borrow a line from Shakespeare. Let's just say he's 'suffered the whips and scorns of outrageous fortune'. 

A few years ago in the days when Danny had a place of his own and a job and a normal life, he shelled out to lay a laminate floor in the kitchen. Is it humanly possible to get more normal than that? Probably not. Well, he was turfed out of his place during one of his many sanctions and his Registered Social Landlord pulled up the laminate floor to return the flat to its original condition.

And they duly sent Danny a bill for £1000 for doing so.

Of course £1000 might as well be £1 million to a guy living off food parcels. But what the hell. However, the unpaid bill triggered a bunch of new consequences which ended up with Danny sleeping out on the streets. Like the strapline said, beware of the laminate flooring....

And here is where we arrive at the point where Danny and I might have something of a falling out. One dreak winter's morning he was cold and hungry and as per usual he didn't have a penny to his name. Now he could have waited until noon and come into First Base for some grub. 

But Danny didn't wait. Instead he embarked on a catastrophic attempt at shoplifting and completely blew it. Bang to rights. Caught red handed. Fair cop, Gov.

A truly heinous crime. Oh those famous train robbers suddenly had some serious completion because Danny was caught in the act of stealing a pack of sliced cheese priced at 99p.

I mean, come on Danny. A 99p pack of cheese. How do you think it makes First Base look? We can't be much of a food bank when our guys resort to half inching budget dairy products.

Anyway. The cops came and cuffed him and read him his rights. They processed him and he politely let them know he was absolutely 100% guilty as charged.

Which they duly noted in their copious paperwork.

Weeks passed and Danny was awarded his day in court and a duty lawyer who he duly told of his plan to plead 100% guilty.

The Sheriff took Danny's guilt on board and accepted a pal's address for bail. Another hearing would be scheduled once background reports had been assembled. 

Weeks drifted by and eventually a letter arrived at the pal's house Danny had used for his bail address. Unfortunately the pal wasn't much of a secretary and failed to pass the letter on to Danny.

Which meant he missed the hearing.

Shock, horror! The man who had stolen a 99p pack of sliced, processed cheese was in breach of his bail conditions and on the loose! No wonder the cops mobilised their forces and launched a manhunt onto the streets of Dumfries. How long did it take them to track him down? I don't suppose we will ever know. I doubt if we will ever know how many boys in blue were sent out onto the streets to track him down.

What we do know is they finally got their man on a Friday afternoon. What a moment of triumph it must have been. Seal Team 6's moment of glory with Bin Laden pales into insignificance in comparison.

Well they took no chances with the cheese thief. They banged him up for the weekend on made absolutely sure he would be back in front of the Sheriff on Monday morning.

And so it was the Jesse James of dairy products once again faced his fate. Another court date and this time 'breach of bail' was added to the charge sheet.

The case will be heard in a couple of weeks time and already news teams from all around the world are booking up every hotel in Dumfries. What a spectacle it promises to be as Danny finally faces justice.

I think we are about to see one particular record broken, for surely we are about to see the most expensive packet of sliced, processed cheese in the history of mankind. It started out at a modest 99p. And now? Wow. I'll have a go at the maths.

Google has just taken me to a Mirror article which reckons the cost of police custody runs at £418 per day. So, OK. There's £1254. Police time for the manhunt? Maybe another £500. Police paperwork time? £300. Prosecution costs? £500. Danny's Legal Aid bill? £600. Court costs? £1000. Costs of administering some community service time? £500. Which all comes to.....

£4654

£4654 for a 99p pack of sliced, processed cheese nicked by a man who has gone out of his way to plead guilty every step of the way. That really is some pack of cheese.

So are you happy with the way your hard earned tax pounds are being spent? I mean, you could deport an extra two illegals for that! Or you could pay for a whole bunch of school books. Or maybe fill in lots of potholes............

We are constantly told there's no money. We're constantly told austerity is depriving our beloved public services of the ability to do their thing. We're constantly told our gallant boys in blue risk their lives to keep us safe. And all of these statements are true enough some of the time. But not all of the time. 

Four and a half thousand quid for a 99p pack of cheese doesn't much look like value for money to me. But what do I know?

I'm just the foodbank guy.

If you can spare a couple of quid to help First Base feed other noted cheese thieves like Danny, then you can make your way to our Just Giving page by following the link below.


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A DRIVE THROUGH VALLEYS OF FESTERING RAGE


A few days ago I penned a blog about a food parcel client who I christened Bradley. I suppose it was something on a modern parable. Bradley found himself homeless on the streets of Manchester and decided to cycle from town to town until he found a Homeless Department willing and able to offer him a bed. 

Astonishingly he had to cycle all the way to Dumfries to find some shelter. He had to leave England and come to Scotland. As I posted the blog, I wondered if anyone would be interested in Bradley's extraordinary Odyssey.

Well not for the first time I was left pretty gobsmacked. Recent events have flagged up many of the dark sides of social media. Fair enough. But surely one of the greatest benefits of our new online world is the opportunity it offers for stories like Bradley's story to be laid out for the world to see.

As I type these words just over 56,000 people have read about Bradley's 150 mile ride north. I have to admit I feel pretty privileged to have had the chance to be the messenger. And if Bradley's story really is a 2018 version of the Odyssey, well I guess that makes me Homer!

My blog was hardly complimentary towards the country of my birth: England. And as the number of page views swelled, I wondered if I was about to be laid into by marauding bands of angry trolls wrapped in the flag of St George.

Nope. Not a whisper. Not a word. In fact over the course of my many blogs extolling the virtues of an Independent Scotland I have barely ever heard a negative whisper from south of border. I get plenty of responses from other new immigrants who were born in England who have chosen to find a better life up here. I also hear from many who are planning to up sticks and seek refuge from the spreading, noxious jingoism of Theresa May's poisonous world. 

I suppose this is merely yet more evidence of the new bubbles we now inhabit. The border at Gretna Green may be invisible and frictionless, but it becomes more of a border with every passing week. I certainly feel it more and more as I drive past the Cross of St George as I head south down the M6 to visit my mum or to go and watch the Mighty Reds at Anfield.

I seldom see all that much of my old stamping ground. But on the occasions when I get any kind of close up look at the streets I grew up in, I get a cold feeling. Everywhere has changed and changed utterly as the man once said.

Once upon a time it amused me to see the way southerners exhibited a kind of shuddering fear of the dark valleys of East Lancashire and West Yorkshire. Uncompromising dark moors. Long dead cotton mills latticed with smashed windows. Terraced streets hanging to steep slopes. Soot blackened pubs crouching on every street corner.

What they saw as alien and threatening, I saw as home. I was never British, but I was always Lancastrian. More to the point, I was sure I always would be. I had a front row 1980's seat as the Thatcher regime took the place apart brick by brick. And by then I was too much an adopted son of Liverpool to see the early stages of the dark, bitter contagion which has slowly spread through the dark valleys I once called home.

Liverpool resisted the Thatcher hurricane. As the rest the country mocked and made up new Scouser jokes, the city stood firm behind its barricades. The city kept a hold of its soul. And now the city is being rewarded for its stubborn resilience. Against all sensible odds Liverpool is booming again as Europe's most popular weekend destination. Tourists fly into John Lennon airport in their thousands to do the Beatles and the football and the waterfront and the night life. 

But Liverpool has always been a place apart. I hope it always will be. It came as no surprise to anyone when the city stood shoulder to shoulder with Scotland in the EU Referendum.

These days I am very much a Scottish Scouser: any affiliation I once had to the valleys of East Lancashire has long gone. It is literally years since I spent any time there.

Until Saturday.

After the joys of Liverpool 0 - Stoke 0, I headed sixty miles east along the M62 to a small town on the outskirts of Huddersfield to pick up an Ebay purchase.

As I passed through 'Death Valley' and into the foothills of the Pennines, Bradley's story was very much fresh in my mind. Oldham, Rochdale, and the bleak moors where Brady and Hindley once upon a time buried their dead.

And then it was the Satnav voice in my ear as we wound along the Colne valley to our destination. The same houses and mills Lowry once painted, but so very different. The potholed road reminded me of the kind of thing I drove along when visiting East Germany before the Wall came down. Maybe I was imagining it, but every town seemed to be wrapped in a kind of festering anger. The only sign of any economic life was unmistakably Asian. Shops and car washes and repair shops. Kebab and curry places instead of Fish and Chips. Pubs on very tenth corner instead of every corner. Boarded windows and mobility scooters.

The very dismal heart of Brexit Britain. Beaten and doomed and looking for someone to blame. And finding someone to blame. People with brown faces.

Of course this is what London does best. It's the old divide and rule thing. Two hundred years ago these dark valleys were home to engine which propelled the British Empire. The cotton flowed in through the docks on the Mersey to be spun in the satanic mills of East Lancashire and West Yorkshire. And then the finished garments were be sent back out through Liverpool to be rammed down the throats of half a billion Indians who were banned from spinning their own cotton.

And then both sides of the coin became redundant as the Empire collapsed like a soggy cardboard box in the wake of two world wars. The engine room was no longer needed as London turned all its attention to money laundering and ten new garden centres a week. And all those Indians and Pakistanis we invited over to clean the streets and unblock the drains? Well they could be the fall guys. They could carry the can for all the closed down mills.

Thankfully the people of Liverpool tapped into their instinctive mistrust of anything to come out of the mouths of the public schoolboys of Westminster. Liverpool walked away from England and chose the rest of the world instead. Now the Kop makes up new songs every week to celebrate Mo Salah, our newly crowned Egyptian king.

"........ if he scores another few, I'll be a Muslim too....."

Every other Saturday, football loving second generation Pakistanis come to Anfield to feel a part of things. They don't go near Ewood Park or Turf Moor or Eland Road. Can't blame them really. Who in their right mind would want to cough up £40 to be called a fucking Paki bastard.

The Farage poison has seeped into the soot blackened bricks. You can feel it. Taste it. And as I picked my way through the pot holes, I quietly thanked my lucky stars. We got out of Dodge and left the poison far, far behind.

Another Premier League Saturday played out through the radio as we found where we needed to go and started out on the journey back north. Interviews and league tables. And as we got back onto the M62 the phone in show kicked into life.

Calls from Burnley. Turf Moor. Burnley 0 - Brighton and Hove Albion 0. Anger and controversy. Chris Hughton, Brighton's mixed race manager had hit out at the Burnley crowd for booing one of his players. The studio scrambled for the back story. And found it. Brighton player Gaeton Bong had accused ex Burnley player, Jay Rodriguez, of racism. The FA had duly investigated the allegations and decided the charges could not be proven. Jay Rodriguz doesn't play for Burnley any more. In fact he hasn't played for them for a while. But a succession of callers were keen to point out the fact that Jay remained very much one of their own.

"He's a Barrowford lad. Born and bred. One or ours...."

Ah, Barrowford. Once upon a time home to my friend Diana and Channel 4's Krishnan Guru Murthi. Suddenly my mind was washed through with memories of Burnley. My Dad's old home ground. 'Angels' on a Saturday night where you were in for a guaranteed kicking if anyone found out you were from Blackburn. The growling home end at Turf Moor.

"Everywhere we go...
People wanna know....
We are the Burnley.....
Long Side aggro.....
If you don't believe us.....
Come and have a go....."

And here they were trying to justify themselves. Angry. The Brighton fans had responded to their booing with a chant of 'You're just a town full of racists'. And the home crowd had returned the favour with a few choice homophobic ditties. 

The fans were segregated by a line of policemen and stewards. Insults were thrown across the divide. Brexitland and Remainland. North and south. Citizens of somehwere and citizens of everywhere. The booming and the doomed. And every time the black man received the ball, the black man was booed by the white crowd.

They were adamant they were doing no more than defending 'one of their own'. A white Burnley lad from Barrowford. And none of them seemed remotely aware of how they sounded. They were lost in their bubble.

As I headed west along the M62 it was hard not to come to a pretty obvious conclusion. Here were people who were simply constructing an excuse to go back to the good old days when it was deemed to be more than OK to boo the black player.

"Get back on your jam jar....."

We dropped down from the Pennines onto the Fylde Plain and then made our way up into the hills of Cumbria. The angry voices on the radio eventually faded out.

A blue sign. 'Welcome to Scotland'. A new home. An adopted home. A better home. A sanctuary. And I smiled to myself.

A place worth cycling a hundred and fifty miles to get to.      

Saturday, April 21, 2018

SO THIS IS ENGLAND 2018. AND THIS IS SCOTLAND 2018.

Sometimes we need a close up view of something small to get a better view of something huge.


Something like this.


It's an iconic picture, right? A now familiar picture. It was taken in the very darkest depths of the Vietnam War. It was taken at a time when the American military were becoming overly comfortable with their newly minted term, 'collateral damage'. It was their way of making primordial horror easier on the ear. Collateral damage? Sounds pretty harmless. I mean, how bad can things really be when two such seemingly innocent words are hooked up with each other and sent out into the airwaves.

The picture's stark brutal truth soon elbowed its way into the very forefront of the world's attention span. Collateral damage in the flesh. The ruined, charred, napalm burned flesh of a young girl stripped of all dignity. Modern, industrialised war up close and personal.

In 'Apocalypse Now', Kurtz nails it down into a tightly wrapped sentence.

"We train our young men to drop fire on people but their commanders won't allow them to write 'FUCK' on their aeroplanes.... why? ..... because it's obscene....."

And then there is this picture.




It's familiar of course. The Turkish policeman and the dead Syrian toddler. Just one death in the midst of tens of thousands, but a different death. A death to make it real. A death which turned the nation against Katie Hopkins for labelling desperate human beings fleeing the killing fields of Syria as 'cockroaches'. And suddenly we were able to see the refugees as fellow human beings as opposed to threatening statistics.

Just for a while.

Well last week a snapshot of England 2018 walked into First Base and rang the bell on the counter.

I'm going to call him Bradley and in a few paragraphs time you will figure out why.

There was nothing about Bradley at first glance to lead me to think he was about to become iconic. Early twenties. An air of politeness. A slightly nervous smile.

He passed me his referral form with apologetic body language. And when he spoke his voice was from my neck of the woods. Just the merest hint of Noel Gallagher. Old cotton mills transformed into quirky shopping malls. Peterloo and Sir Alex Fergusson and snarled up traffic on the M62.

I read the bare bones.

"Sanctioned, yeah?"

"Well. Yes. But that was a while ago. I suppose I'm just homeless now."

The paper bore the name of a hostel in town.

"But your sorted for a place to stay?"

"Yeah. I just need to take things step by step. You know. I need to put things back together one by one."

A quiet, considered voice. Measured. Not a trace of anger or outrage. I got the feeling he was beyond all that. Yesterday is dead and gone and tomorrow's out of sight....

As I put is parcel together I wondered if he would volunteer his story. I never ask. At First Base we give people food whether they tell us their story or not.

Bradley laid out the bare bones without any realisation of his story being anything particularly extraordinary. And he was wrong about that. About as wrong as wrong can be.

In his quiet Mancunian, he described a modern day Odyssey. An iconic picture of England 2018. And in a way it is also a picture of Scotland 2018.

One minute life was rolling along and the next moment things went to hell and Bradley found himself homeless. He went through all the right doors to ask for help. For a chit to use the safety net. For the support of the country of his birth. Of England. Of the green and pleasant land that once upon a time had sprouted all those dark satanic mills.

And what did he find? Nothing. No warm embrace. No soft landing. Instead it was the streets. Long nights and the brutal, biting cold of the dawn. Distant sirens. Drunken shouts and the growl of the pre-dawn road sweeper.

Lost and not a chance of being found. Every day he asked the question. And every day the answer was the same. No room in the inn. No room anywhere. Only the pavement or the park.

So he took stock. He weighed his options. He reviewed his worldly goods. A bike and a bag of clothes.

And he came up with a plan.

A 2018 Odyssey.

Thirty something years ago, Norman Tebbit came up with his iconic interview. What should those left penniless and unemployed do to make their lives better? Get on their bikes. Go to where the work was waiting to be found. Away from the places where once upon a time ships were built and steel milled and coal mined and cotton spun.

Well Bradley had a bike. Have bike, can travel right? And he signed up to his own simple plan. So there was no homeless accommodation to be had in his home town of Manchester. So maybe he could find a different town where the answer would be different. Maybe. Only one way to find out. 

So he saddled up and started peddling. And in every new town he stopped and asked the same question. Again and again and again. Is there anywhere for me to stay here? Is there any room in the inn?

And the answer was always the same. A flat 'no'. All full up here. Sorry, but it's the cuts you see. Austerity. And as he worked his way north through Wigan and Preston and Lancaster he started to hear different words over and over.

'No local connection'.

If you're local, then maybe there might be a place. But Manchester..... Sorry mate. Manchester isn't from round here. Manchester is from Manchester. Which isn't here. Which means you have 'no local connection'. But his fellow street sleepers told him the 'no local connection' was something of a red herring. They said they were local and there was still no room to be had in the inn. Not in England in 2018.

And as the plains of Lancashire gave way to the mountains of Cumbria, he started to hear whispers of a place where there was still a sliver of hope to be found. At first it was just a myth, but with every hard mile north the myth took a little more shape and form. And reality.

A place called Scotland. A place of sanctuary. A place were basic humanity hadn't been binned off in the name of austerity. And the hope of Scotland kept him peddling over the rain soaked hills.

There was no room in the inn in Kendal or Penrith or Carlisle.

I wonder how he felt when at last he reached the big blue sign.



And suddenly he was on the last leg. Dumfries 23 miles. No more mountains. Flat back roads. Easy peddling for his now strong legs. And at last when he asked the question, the answer was yes. Yes there is somewhere. A bed. Clean sheets. A place to wash. A place to be warm. And a piece of paper and a set of directions. 

To us.

A bag of food to be warmed up in the communal kitchen. The basics of life. A roof and a chance of something hot to eat. A toe hold. A start point. A line in the sand. A chance to find a way to start over. A place to forge a new life.

A hundred and fifty years ago, hundreds of thousands of Scots took ships across the Atlantic to seek out better lives in America. For them it was Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.

Bradley got himself a blue sign and a Homeless Department who said yes.

I think he'll do OK. He carries a thoughtful intelligence and his quiet manners are instinctive. He's more than employable and I don't think it will take him very long to be employed. He'll be a good addition. A new citizen. A new Scot. A refugee from the brutal reality of what England has become in 2018.

People up here have no clue of just how bad things are getting south of the border. They have no idea of how far the hospitals and schools have fallen. They have no sense of the brutal, hopeless bleakness.

You don't cycle 150 miles to put a roof over your head unless to really have to. 

This is why Bradley's modern day Odyssey is so iconic. It says much about England 2018. It also says much about Scotland 2018. Those in Westminster might see us as being on a par with Lincolnshire County Council. Well they are deluded on most things, so I guess there is little reason to feel surprised.

In reality, England and Scotland are drifting apart. London continues to deny Edinburgh any say on immigration. And they seem to think they have the whip hand. But they are missing what is going down in their blind spot. They might be able to lay down the law about migrants from the rest of the world, but there's not a thing they can do about internal migration.

And let's be clear about this, internal migration is a mighty big deal. Remember all the millions of freed slaves who left the cotton fields and headed north to power the steel mills of Pennsylvania. Look at the hundreds of millions of rural Chinese who had checked in their villages for the mega cities and thereby enabled their country to move up to number two in the economic league table.

The word of Scotland is spreading. We are becoming a beacon for people who hate what England is becoming. Many will be nurses and teachers and programmers. Others will merely be at the end of their tether.

Like Bradley.

And this is about to become something which is absolutely huge. For hundreds of years Scotland has been a place people have been forced to run away from. Well not any more.

Now we are the sanctuary. The shining city on the hill. A place far from the poisonous, festering nastiness of Farage and Rees Mogg and May and Johnson. 

We are the place which offers the kind of hope you ride a bike a hundred and fifty miles to get a piece of.

Failte gu Alba.

Oh, and by the way. If you can spare a couple of quid to help us to support more Bradleys please check out the link below

THE FIRST BASE FUNDRAISING PAGE


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A PULP FICTION WRITER'S CONSPIRACY THEORY

To be honest, there are not too many perks associated with being a pulp fiction writer. You know, perks like earning so much as a fraction of a living. Today, Amazon are telling me I have earned about £30 so far this month. Which makes it a pretty good month by the way! Sales of your actual printed page books in April? Ah. Well, that would be a big fat zero.

For pulp fiction writers like the author of this post, the worst job in the world goes something like this. You add up all of the hours you have spent researching, writing and promoting your books. OK. This is Figure A. Then you add up all the money you have earned from punting them out. Figure B. Then you grit your teeth and divide Figure A by Figure B and lo and behold you discover the hourly rate of pay achieved. For me the figure is something which hovers around 10p per hour. I doubt if I will ever manage to seriously threaten the paycheck of an Indonesian sweat shop worker. It's why those of us who don't go by the name Grisham rely on our day jobs to keep the lights on.

So I reckon we deserve the odd perk here and there, right? One such perk is surely the right to indulge in the occasional conspiracy theory.

So here we go.

A spy swapped Russian from the icy depths of the Cold War and his daughter are poisoned in Salisbury. Now that part is about the only straight forward element to the whole affair. Everything beyond this basic fact has become lost in a whirlwind of claim and counter claim. It is amazing how you can start with a nerve agent attack in a leafy English town and end up worrying about the fate of one cat and two hamsters. Mad world, right?

Almost everything we have watched go down over the last couple of weeks has been extremely weird. Nothing much seems to add up.

Here are a few of my head scratchers.

Ex UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, knocked out a blog quoting a Porton Down report from two years ago which explained why they hadn't added Novichok to their list of dastardly chemical and biological weapons. They had never actually seen Novichok. It was merely a story told by a defector from 1981 who had worked on making it. They didn't say there was no such thing. They merely played a bureaucratic straight bat and said they couldn't talk sensibly about something they had never actually seen. Fair enough.

Which made it a tad hard to explain when they were suddenly able to name and shame Novichok within hours of the Skripals being found at death's door on a park bench. Now Craig Murray pointing out this inconvenient truth wasn't exactly a problem for Russia. Quite the opposite. Which begs a big question, namely who was it who launched a monumental cyber attack on his blog page? And I mean massive. 12.5 million attacks in 24 hours.

Then there are the anomalies about Novichok itself which nobody seems to want to talk about. To start with this stuff was hailed to be the most wickedly toxic substance on planet earth. The name certainly made it seem that way. So how come the Skripals seem to have made a pretty good recovery? This is hardly the norm when the Russians set out to get their man. The Kremlin doesn't exactly have a track record of choosing duff poisons.

Then there is all the usual stuff about Vladimir Putin. Once a KGB man always KGB man! Sound familiar? I have heard a few ex spooks describing one of the espionage game's most treasured unwritten rules. You never, ever top anyone who has been a part of a spy swap. Why? Simple. Because if you ever do succumb to the temptation of whacking someone you have swapped, well, there won't be any more swaps. And if you lose the option of the spy swap, then you lose the chance of ever getting your guys back if and when things go wrong. All the spooks say this is something a true ex spook would never, ever give up. Once a KGB man always a KGB man?

But the big one for me is the reaction of the British State. I found my way to an extraordinary series of articles from Buzzfeed which you can find here if you are interested.

LOTS OF RUSSIAN KILLINGS IN THE UK

Basically is seems Sasha Litvinenko was far from being alone. Buzzfeed reckon there have been at least 14 killings over the last few years carried out on British soil by the Kremlin or the Russian Mafia or both. And who told Buzzfeed? Multiple sources from within the CIA and the NSA.

One case in particular jumps from the page - Alexander Perepilichnyy.

Now Alex started out as a bit of a bad boy. His finger prints were all over a Russian mafia heist which scalped $230 million. When he fell foul of the guys with power drills and blow torches, he got out of Dodge (Well, Moscow) and fled to London. And then he did the poacher turned gamekeeper thing and took the Eurostar to Paris to spill the beans to a bunch of Swiss prosecuters.

It seems the lads with the power drills and blow torches were less than amused. A hit was put out and within a week of returning from Paris Alex dropped dead from a heart attack on his morning jog along the leafy byways of Surrey. You would have though the Met might have found this somewhat suspicious. Alex was a relatively young man who had only a month earlier undertaken a rigorous medical for a new life insurance policy.

Well they weren't suspicious at all. Nothing to see here chaps. Natural causes. Case closed.

What of the coroner? Same thing. Nothing to see here.

And when the Governments of The USA and France and Switzerland started kicking up a fuss, what did our gallant Home Secretary have to say about it? Nothing to see here.....

And there it might have ended at the familiar stone wall of the British Establishment. But it didn't end there because Legal and General refused to write a cheque on the life insurance. They sued for another autopsy and in the end they got one. And guess what they found? Traces of a rare Chinese flowering plant called Gelsemium. Not the kind of plant which grows much in Surrey. It has a nick name - 'Heartbreak Grass'. Because if you eat Gelsemium it does exactly what it says on the tin. It gives you an instant and massive coronary. It literally breaks your heart. It renders you very dead indeed.

Now this is much more like the Kremlin's usual choice of poison. As in the kind that leaves you deader than dead as opposed to released from intensive care and on the road to recovery.

Armed with this rather clear proof, every man and his dog demanded an enquiry. Well of course they did. Did they get one? Nope. Our gallant Home Secretary who of course is now our gallant Prime Minister said an enquiry was out for the questions due to issues of National Security. This reason came from a well worn play book. It was the same reason Sasha Litvinenko's widow had thrown in her face for ten long years. It was the reason Sasha Litvinenko was the only murdered Russian to be enquired into.

Reasons? Why the stone wall? Why the complete lack of interest shown when 14 Russians are whacked in plain sight. Well Buzzbeed asked this question of people in Washington described as 'senior intelligence sources'. The answer came dripping with contempt. In their view, the London Establishment had become totally addicted to the heroin of dirty Russian money. And so long as dirty Russian money continued to prop up dividends in the City and mansion prices in Belgravia, then the Kremlin was more than welcome to kill any enemy they liked on British soil. Enjoy your special London murderer's Oyster Card, tovarich. Pay up and poison as you go. Nice.

But now everything has suddenly changed. A failed poisoning along with two dead hamsters and one dead cat has hailed the return of the Cold War. All of a sudden our gallant leader is willing to turn her back on all that lovely dirty Russian money and all Hell has been let well and truly loose.

So what has precipitated this dramatic change of heart? Well, here comes my conspiracy theory.

The big change is the same big change as it always is. Brexit. I think the government is taking rather more notice of its own economic projections than they are letting on. They know only too well just how screwed the UK really is. Basically they see a Realm where only two regions stump up more tax than they consume. One of course is London and the South East.

The other is Scotland.

So how are things looking for London and South East? Pretty crap, that's how. It seems pretty clear the City isn't going to be cut any breaks by Brussels. And what chance for tourism when all those super smart, super polite, super capable young Europeans stop coming? And who will be there to sweep the roads and empty the bins and man A&E and build stuff? Ouch. Brexit is about to hit London like a 38 tonne truck with an ISIS guy at the wheel.

The UK's balance of payments is already completely dire. If London takes a hit, it will get even worse. My oh my, it seems HMG is going need to hang on to all that lovely Scottish trade surplus at all costs.

But......

Oh my God! What if those Scottish bastards have another referendum? What if......

Oh yeah. It just gets worse. Especially as more of the Brexit pigeons make it home to their roosts and London bows to the inevitable and signs off on the kind of deal on the Irish Border which will have Rees Mogg spitting with rage. Because here's the thing, if they agree a completely open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, then they can't make up scare stories about a future hard border between England and an independent Scotland.

And this will only be one of the many lies of September 2014 which can never be told again. Remember Ed Milliband's warnings of fences and watchtowers at Gretna? I certainly do.

They will be able to see the writing on the wall as clearly as we can see it up here. Last time we started at 29% and took it all the way to 45% whilst they told every lie they could think of. This time we start at 45% and all their lies are used up. This time they're going to lose. They know it only too well. If only we had the confidence to know it as well, but that is another story.

So how would it play out? Scotland sails away. The rest of the UK falls into a massive balance of payments crisis. Run on the pound. And in the blink of an eye London will find itself knocking on the door of the Third World.

Time for Plan B.

As in don't let those aforesaid Scottish bastards get the chance of having a second referendum at all. Sounds good, but how? What reason could be given? Threatening them and telling them to do as their told probably won't wash all that well.

So how's about this? Why don't we take the opportunity to poke the Russian bear? You know. Really get in their faces and ramp it up. And so long as we get the tabloids onside, then we'll be able to start scaring everyone to death. And once everyone is well and truly bricking it, we play out our aces.

The only thing standing between our treasured way of life and the marauding Russian hordes is our treasured Trident deterrent. Without Trident, we're all doomed. Without Trident, every man, woman and child in Britain will be transported to Siberia and forced to eat live rats. And at this time of national emergency, these communist loving Scots are threatening to take away our last line of defence and leave us all exposed to rape and pillage from vast hordes of savage Cossacks.....

Well people of Britain, let me tell you this. I cannot and I will not allow 5 million irresponsible, traitorous Scots to put the sixty million inhabitants of these Sceptered Isles at risk of annihilation. Oh no. Never! Not on my watch! There will be no Scottish Referendum! Not now. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Not ever. From here on in we are all in this together......

For reasons of National Security.......

Just a thought!    

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A HUGE THANKS TO EVERYONE WHO CAME ALONG TO SUPPORT US ON SATURDAY AND GOT US OVER THE LINE.

Monday morning. Usual routine. Greggs for fifty loaves of bread and then up the Nith valley for seventy packs of sliced ham from Brown Brothers in Kelloholm. There are two ways of making this particular journey. You can fume your way north behind tractors and trucks and curse the lack of overtaking opportunities. Or you can take the second option which takes half an hour or so longer and is worth every second when the morning is sparkling bright. 

A morning where the views are longer than long. A morning when it is easy to understand why Scotland is the most popular tourist destination on this choked up planet of ours.

Usually my back road drive gives me the chance to clear my had of clutter and sort of free wheel the miles. But yesterday there was a nagging feeling. An itch. The all too familiar feeling of waiting on the phone. And when is all said and done, what is there to like about waiting on a phone to ring?

Regular readers will know we had our fight to win a share of the Council's anti poverty money on Saturday. Many regular readers will know this for a stone cold fact for the simple reason many regular readers of this blog turned up to give us their vote. I couldn't believe how far some of you travelled to gives us your support. Bloody amazing to be frank.

The bare bones were as follows. There were twenty five charities vying to win the support of 350 voters. A lot of talking! When we packed up our stuff at the end of the day, we really didn't know how it had gone. Sure, lots of people said lots of supportive things and lots of people told us we had been their first choice. But would there be enough of them? Impossible to say. It was very much our first experience of being at the sharp end of the democratic process.

Colin, the Council guy in charge of running the thing, promised he would let us all know one way or another on Monday. So there I was. Edging around the pot holes and watching the sparkling sunlight bounce off the waters the Nith. And waiting on the phone.

Well it didn't ring all the way up the Nith valley. And it didn't ring al the way back down again.

But when I got back to First Base and cracked open my e mail account there was a message awaiting. Ahh. So the moment of truth wasn't going to come through the phone after all. No point putting it off. When you take off a plaster the best bet is just rip it, right?

My eyes scanned the screen and the key words jumped out at me.

'I am pleased to inform you........'

A wave of relief. No air was punched. No high fiving. Just relief. And only at that very moment did I realise just what a bitter pill it would have been if we hadn't made it. 15 years and tens of thousands of food parcels. It would have been tough to take if our local community hadn't deemed us worth the nod.

But it didn't happen. We got the nod. And it is certainly high time to say a huge thank you to everyone who turned out to give us the nod.

Well the relief passed and yesterday I spent several hours sawing, splitting and stacking timber. And I got to thinking just how absurd all of this is. For eight years now the most inept and brutal Westminster government I have ever known has been sticking pins into poor people because the Daily Mail demands it. And for the last eight years the likes of First Base have been scrambling to try and alleviate the misery Whitehall has caused.

And still they have the front to put on their pious faces and play the part of being the grown ups who are determined to put the country's finances in order. And for eight years their serial incompetence has seen the national debt double whilst hundreds of thousands of Brits have been thrown into lives of abject misery.

Remember the Bedroom Tax? Thankfully we don't have to suffer the infamous Bedroom Tax up here in Scotland. Thankfully our Government in Edinburgh has seen it for what it is - gratuitous nastiness that costs way more than it ever saves. Casual cruelty served up on a silver platter to satisfy the vicious needs of angry old people who read the Daily Mail and hate just about everyone.

Anyway. I digress. The Bedroom Tax was supposed to save £100 million a year. In practice it must be costing at least twice that as the tax payer picks up the tab for tens of thousands of families being evicted and parked up four to a room in run down B&B's. One star guest houses have never had it so good. You don't need to worry about TripAdvisor when the local Homeless Department ensures your 'No Vacancies' sign never has to be taken down.

What do you call it when you try to save £100 million and instead you spend £200 million? Complete ineptitude. That's what you call it. And all the while the likes of First Base have to fight to keep the poor sods the clowns of Whitehall have screwed over afloat.

HMG has recently been trying to clean up the various nuclear power stations which have run their course. Now this is complicated stuff, right? Complicated as in a half a century's worth of hyper toxic radio active waste. Not the kind of job you would really want to leave in the hands of serial cock up merchants. So they asked for companies to put in their tenders whilst trying to fix the game to make sure the cheapest bid won the day regardless of which bid offered the safest bet. Well of course they blew it. Can you seriously imagine these idiots managing this kind of complicated corruption successfully? Aye right. The cheap and cheerful outfit won the bid and the better, more professional outfit lost out and were understandably pissed off. In fact they were so pissed off they took HM Government to court and duly rinsed them. The cost of this particular ineptitude? You got it. £100 million. Oops. And now the cheap and cheerful boys are slowly but surely going bust and by the time the radioactive dust settles the whole thing will have cost us billions.

And for what? And in a desperate attempt to get even close to balancing the books they will once again heed the Redtop clarion call and continue to slam the poor. Over and over and over again. And all the while the bitter and twisted septuagenarian readership of the Daily Mail will revel in the suffering because that it is what they do. And all the while the likes of First Base will scratch and scrape for every penny whilst we make like King Canute and try to hold back the tide of Westminster uselessness.

And on and on it will go. A Groundhog Day of grinding poverty played out in a world where less than a hundred people own half of everything

But I digress from the main purpose of these words. On Saturday we had a win. And this particular win will mean we can help out 500 or so people over the next year who have had their lights turned out care of the DWP. Who have had their heating switched off care of the DWP. Who have been royally screwed by the DWP.

It is a win thanks to you guys. Saturday's win means King Canute can brace his knees and carry on with holding back the tide duties.

Not for the first time in this blog I'm going to look to 'Apocalypse Now' for a wind the thing up quote.

 Willard:   “It was the way we had over here of living with ourselves. We’d cut them in half with a machine gun and give them a Band-Aid. It was a lie—and the more I saw of them, the more I hated lies.”



Wednesday, March 21, 2018

THIS SATURDAY FIRST BASE ARE IN FOR ONE HELL OF A FIGHT....AND WE REALLY, REALLY NEED ALL THE HELP WE CAN GET!

Imagine a reality TV style voice over. You know. Kind of deep and super serious. Maybe some semi ominous music in the background.

".... the battlefield...... The Usual Place, Dumfries.....

...... The battle.... 28 charities are going to fight it out for £96,000

..... only five can prevail....................... "

And then there would be a montage of grim faced charity managers, all primed and ready for the fight for their lives.

OK, OK. I know. Calm down Frankland. And I fully accept this picture might well be wrong on all kinds of levels as I am not a person who watches any kind of reality TV.

So I best dump the voice over and the music and get back down to earth.

Last Saturday First Base had our first brush with local democracy in a council meeting hall in Gretna.

"..... 15 local charities..... £58,000 of lifeblood funding... only four will be left standing...."

So how did it go? Well it was bloody cold. 160 people cast their votes to decide who would get a share of the cash. Everyone had the chance to make five choices. Their favoured charity got 5 points, the next favoured 4 points, and so on all the way down to one point. So each voting slip had a total of 15 points which meant a grand total of 2400.

The last vote was cast just before three o'clock and we all had to wait on tenterhooks until yesterday morning to see if we had made it.

My phone rang a little after nine and Colin from the council put me out of my misery. So how did we do? I guess the best way to describe it is bloodied but unbowed.

We got 257 votes. Just over 10% of the total. Enough to put us into fourth place. I kind of figured anything in the top five would be enough for us to get what we had applied for.

Not so.

The top three bids amounted to £52,000 which meant there was only £6000 left for fourth place. We had bid for £12,000 so it wasn't exactly a win, but it certainly wasn't abject defeat.

I asked how far we were adrift for third place and the answer was something of a jaw dropper. Third place had 260 points. As in three more than us....


Agggghhhhhhh!

Just one more person! Brutal.

I absolutely must mention the magnificent men and women of 'Annandale YES' in these dispatches. Ten of then turned out to support us and their votes absolutely got us over the line. Thanks guys.

So what does it mean? Well, just over half of the money we were asking for was for emergency power for people in Annandale and Eskdale who are so completely stone broke they can't afford any heat and light.

We're going to have to scale our plans back a bit. What we will be able to do is offer £250 a month of emergency power per month via the Citizens Advice office in Annan. How will it work? Simple. If any of their clients are living in the cold and dark as a result of being rendered completely penniless due to having their benefits 'sanctioned', we will call the client and arrange to meet them at a paypoint to get the lights back on.

We would have loved to have been in a position to offer this service all across the region, but we're going to have to cut our cloth accordingly. As they say in my old Lancastrian stamping ground, summat's better than nowt.

So now it's time to rally the troops, fix up the walking wounded, oil the guns and march our battered forces onto the next battlefield.

The Usual Place, Dumfries at 11 o'clock next Saturday morning.

I guess it's going to be something of a bun fight. When punters arrive at one of these 'Participatory Budgeting' events, they are encouraged to make their way around all of the stalls, hear what the charities plan to do to alleviate local poverty, and then to cast their votes accordingly. To be honest, it didn't really work out this way at the event last Saturday. I guess about a third of the punters did the rounds. The majority made a beeline for one of the stalls, said their hellos, voted, and headed back out into the biting cold of the 'Mini Beast from the East'.

I have no doubt it will be the same story again this Saturday. If a voter gives each of us 5 minutes to make our case, it will take them two and a half hours to make it all the way around the room. Ain't never going to happen, right? 

If we are going to make it through this thing, we are going to need a whole bunch of our supporters to turn out and get us over the line. So if by any chance you are in and around Dumfries on Saturday maybe you could spare a few minutes to call in to the Usual Place to give us a helping hand.

And if we are successful? Well if we make it, we will have about £10,000 worth of emergency power available for the good people of Nithsdale - From Kirkconnel all the way down the river to Dumfries. 

It really is impossible to overstate just how soul crushingly miserable it is to face weeks on end living in candle light and eking out freezing cold hour after freezing cold hour. It's a truly brutal punishment for being a few minutes late for an appointment at the Job Centre or not being able to read and write well enough to keep up with their harsh regime. Well, with your help we can get the heat and light back on for these people.

We have been doing this for over a year now thanks to the money we raised via a spectacularly successful online funding campaign. In an average month we help out about 30 people to the tune of £30 each. I probably should make one thing completely clear. We DON'T hand out cash. We accompany our clients to the paypoint to put the cash straight onto the meter.

I guess I'm done here.

The Usual Place, Dumfries

Saturday 24 March

11 am to 3 pm

We're really going to need all the help we can get. Please share this far and wide. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

FIRST BASE NEED YOUR HELP AGAIN, ONLY THIS TIME WE'RE NOT ASKING FOR YOUR MONEY. THIS TIME WE ARE ASKING FOR YOUR VOTE.

Our local Council are kicking off a pretty interesting experiment this month. They have allocated £240,000 for local projects who are trying to tackle poverty.

So. OK. There's nothing particularly new in this of course. And as the region's main food bank we have obviously thrown our hat in the ring.

To start with the process of putting our name forward was pretty routine. An online application form with all the usual the questions. Who are you? How are you governed? What do you do? What do you hope to do? Where will you do it? How much is it going to cost?

Answering such questions is meat and potatoes for any front line charity in the world. And to be honest, most of the time it pretty much sucks. We all do our best to make a difference as the tide of poverty inexorably rises. We have a whole bunch of brilliant volunteers who give up their time and energy for a simple reason - they want to make a difference. They want to make things better for the people in their community who have drawn the shortest of short straws. You can maybe imagine how hard it is to encapsulate all of this into a digital box where you are told in no uncertain terms not use more than 200 words. Or else.

And once you have done your level best to paint a picture of what you do, a decision on whether or not you are worth funding is made purely on the basis of the 200 or so words you have squeezed into the digital box.

At First Base we get lucky about one time in six. Is it frustrating? You bet it's frustrating. It makes you want to smack your head against the wall.

Well, to their great credit, our Council have acknowledged this and they have changed things up. They will not be making the decision as to which projects will be chosen to try to stem the rising tide of local poverty. All the Council are doing is checking applications met the required criteria.

And the final decision? Well they are leaving that to the people. To you. To us. To the community. Dumfries and Galloway are going all Scandinavian and passing some power down to the people.

So how is it going to work? Quite simply, actually. Over the next month there will be four public meetings held across the region. The likes of ourselves will be given a table to lay out our wares and the doors will be opened to the public at 11 am. For four hours we will get the chance to try and persuade people we will make a genuine impact on local poverty and then the members of the public who come along get the chance to vote. The doors close at 3 pm.

These are the three meetings we will be attending.

SATURDAY, MARCH 17

THE RICHARD GREENHOW CENTRE, GRETNA

SATURDAY, MARCH 24

THE USUAL PLACE, DUMFRIES

SATURDAY, APRIL 21

THE DALBEATTIE LEARNING CAMPUS

ALL THE EVENTS START AT 11AM AND CLOSE AT 3PM 

So now I guess you can see where I am coming from in the title of this blog! We really hope you might be willing to spare an hour so to come along and hopefully reward us with your vote. Right now I am viewing this new Council idea with great positivity. I guess it might be hard to feel the same if we wind up pitching our heads off and not getting any votes. 

However, if we fail to win enough support for our applications to be successful, well it will be much easier to live with than being rejected by some faceless group of people playing God on the basis of 200 words in a digital box.

OK. I now need to say what we plan to do if we are successful.

Right now our emergency food parcels are available to collect from a network of 24 'pick up' points spread all the way across the region from Langholm to Castle Douglas. By the end of this week this list will have grown to 26 once the customer service centres in Eastriggs and Lochmaban receive their first deliveries.

A couple of months ago we received funding from the Scottish Government to also provide emergency sanitary ware. 

If we manage to persuade to persuade the public to vote for us at the coming events, we will be able to provide important extra support.

1. We will make sure all our collection points carry a supply of emergency dog and cat food. This is more important than you might think. All too often people will feed their pets before they feed themselves when they find themselves in crisis.

2. We will make sure all our collection points carry a supply of basic toiletry bags - soap, shampoo, toothbrush and paste, deodorant, a face cloth, a razor and gel.

3. The big one. We will extend our 'Donald Fund' across the whole region. Some background is needed here. In December 2016, I met a guy at the counter who had just been had all his benefits sanctioned for three months. He was struggling with pretty much everything. It was clear to me in a matter of minutes he had severe learning difficulties and he was in no way capable of keeping up the Job Centre's tough regime of thirty plus online job applications a week. He had run out of power and he was facing the grim prospect of eking out three winter months in the cold and dark.

I awarded him the name Donald and told his story in a blog. We set up a JustGiving page and asked if people might be willing to chip in a couple of quid to get his lights back on. Our target was £160. Over the next few days over £8000 came in and we were able to set up the 'Donald Fund' to help out others in the same dismal boat. 

The Donald Fund is available to anyone who has had the their benefits sanctioned. It is also available to anyone who for some reason is receiving no money whatsoever, usually as a result of a DWP cock up. On average we help out about 20 people a month and the average award is £25. Those we help need to bring along their Job Centre paperwork and we never hand out any cash. Instead we go along to a Paypoint and put the money straight onto the meter.

So far we have only been able to offer this service out of our main base in Dumfries. To date we have used up £6000 of our original funding. If we can win enough votes, then we will not only be able to top up the fund, we will also be able to make it available from all of our 'pick up' points across the region.

We think this will make a huge difference. We have already seen this time and again. It is impossible to overstate just how soul destroying it is to have to live in an unheated, unlit home. The days last forever. The hours last forever. The cold eats into the bones. The endless boredom is spirit crushing. No wonder some commit a crime and wait to be caught: prison comes a blessed relief.

If you are able to come along to any of the events, we will be more than happy to tell you more about our plans.

However, I need to make something clear before going any further with this. We have held long and in depth discussions and come to a pretty major decision.

No babies will be kissed. Baby kissing is a bridge to far. And if an unwillingness to kiss infants means our bid fails..... well I guess we're just going to have to live with it.

So. 

Time to wind this up. If you can spare a weekend hour to come along and vote for us, please do. And please share this around to anyone you know who might be willing to come along to help us out.

One more time...

      
SATURDAY, MARCH 17

THE RICHARD GREENHOW CENTRE, GRETNA

SATURDAY, MARCH 24

THE USUAL PLACE, DUMFRIES

SATURDAY, APRIL 21

THE DALBEATTIE LEARNING CAMPUS

ALL THE EVENTS START AT 11AM AND CLOSE AT 3P