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.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A SNAPSHOT OF LIFE IN THERESA MAY'S HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT.

So this is what she said. Our wonderful Prime Minister. The nice vicar's daughter who once upon a time told us all it was time to detoxify her 'Nasty Party'.

This is what she said back in 2012 in the days when she was infusing the Home Office with a tireless vindictive nastiness which is still going strong.

"The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants."

For once she ventured beyond one of her usual inane sound bites. This quote at least has the virtue of being pretty black and white. It echoes the tone of a farmer at his wits end with all the rats in his grain store. It isn't so very far from the mood music Dr Goebbels played to get his brown shirts out onto the streets to smash in Jewish faces on Kristallnacht.

Back in the day.

I best watch my step here. I am in danger of sounding like a fully paid up member of the 'metropolitan liberal elite'. Like a traitorous re-moaner. An enemy within. For the good people of Hartlepool and Stoke and Clacton have spoken which means I really should crawl into a dark corner and die.

Well it seems the Home Office's hostile environment is working out pretty well. Skilled immigrants are leaving in their droves whilst the guys on the immigration desks at the airports are probably getting kind of bored.

The 'Hostile Environment' has been rolled out on two fronts. It is a magnificent fusion of a Government and its people. Leaders and the led acting as one. The government's part is all down to vicious little laws passed by vicious little MP's and enforced by vicious little bureaucrats.

In order too throw a blanket of nastiness over a whole country, Governments always rely heavily on armies of these vicious little bureaucrats. These are the men and women who will do literally anything for their gilded pensions. They were the ones who made sure the trains to Auschwitz Birkenau always ran on time. They were then ones diligently filed the paperwork generated by 6 million East Germans spying on the other 14 million East Germans. They were the ones who picked out the names of the men and women who Saddam Hussein packed off to Abu Graib. They were the ones who diligently applied the rules of Apartheid.

In Theresa May's hostile environment, landlords are supposed to check the paperwork of prospective tenants with strange accents before allowing them to pay for a roof over their heads. Doctors are supposed to check immigration status before treating foreign types.

Immigrants with the wrong paperwork are not allowed access to any public funds. As in benefits. Which I think most people would agree is fair enough. I am sure the immigrants themselves would agree it is fair enough. But here's the kicker. They are not allowed to work whilst they wait for the Home Office to process their application for 'leave to remain'. Instead they are required to live on fresh air. And if they are caught undertaking so much as ten minutes worth of paid work, their applications will be torn up and binned.

All of this means there are different kinds of immigrants, and to be fair to our wonderful Government, this is not at all down to colour. If you are a bent Nigerian State Governor who has managed to fill up an account in the British Virgin Isles with millions of lovely corrupt dollars, then the red carpet will be laid out for you as you skip down the steps of your Gulfstream.

These are the right kinds of Nigerians who keep up the prices of Hampstead property and an Eton education and the very finest whores London can provide. And of course these guys don't look to the British tax payer for any funds. Oh no. No benefits for these splendid chaps. It would be kind of nice of they were just a little more willing to pay a few taxes once they settle here, but that would be asking a lot. Well it would, wouldn't it? And let's not forget, there is 20% of VAT included in the price of a spanking new Bentley and many of the top providers of the very best London hookers pay their taxes with the best of them.

The absolute wrong kind of Nigerian are the human cockroaches who come here to work as nurses or teachers of carers. Bloody swine. And the fact they are more than happy to pay their taxes just like the rest of us is no kind of excuse. And the fact we are chronically short of nurses and teachers and carers is no excuse either. These are bad, bad people who deserve to eke out their lives in the cold reality of Theresa May's 'Hostile Environment'.

Just to make sure there is no irksome public sympathy for this glorious element of Whitehall rule, the press are encouraged to fill their front pages with tales of rapacious immigrants taking all our houses and filling all our schools and congesting our roads and raping our women and picking our pockets and terrorising our pensioners. And speaking foreign on our buses.

And here is where more and more of the great British public are increasingly playing their part in delivering the 'Hostile Environment. In Hartlepool and Stoke and Clacton speaking foreign on a bus can earn you a sharp rebuke. "Haven't you heard of Brexit you Paki bastard. Time you fucked of back home...."

Ahhh ... the endless wit of the people of Shakespeare and Noel Coward......

And in the midst of all this growing hate there are real people. Real families who came here to settle and live and work and fit in and contribute.

A year ago I wrote a blog about one such family. I awarded the family some false names - Florence, Abigail and Thomas. I did my best to describe their life in Theresa May's 'Hostile Environment'. At the time they were facing imminent homelessness. Not allowed any state benefits. Not allowed to work. No family back in Nigeria. And it was December. And it seemed like Thomas might be taken into care whilst his mum and big sister would have to try and find a doorway to sleep in.

I explained how First Base was doing all we could to stop this from happening. A sadly familiar story. In the blue corner, a two bit charity from Dumfries with a leaky roof. In the red corner, her Majesty's Government in Whitehall. We were managing to feed the family and to keep the lights on, but the rent..... the rent looked like being a bridge too far. The rent was a serious problem. The rent was an absolute nightmare.

So I wrote a blog and asked you guys for some help. You can read it here if you like.


It didn't exactly go viral. Eleven hundred people read it. But enough of those eleven hundred readers followed the link to a JustGiving page to generate a whole year's worth of rent. Over £3000.

Wow. My faith in human nature was yet again restored. The wolf was driven back from the door thanks to the fabulous generosity of the public. 

Well a year has gone by and not much has changed. If you are unlucky enough to be applying for 'leave to remain' in the UK, you best have some cash behind you. For Florence, Abigail and Thomas, the bill to make an application was £4000. Which of course might as well have been £4 million. So they had to fill in a form to prove to the Home Office they lacked a penny to their names and were therefore eligible for their fee to be waived. Various local charities contributed written evidence to confirm this. I wrote to explain how First Base had been providing food, power and rent money.

Four months went by and finally the Home Office responded.

Nope. You aren't destitute! It is quite clear from your application you have family who are ready and able to support you. It says so clearly in their letter. Your family is paying for your food and power and rent. Well they can jolly well stump up four grand for your application. 

How could the Home Office manage to mistake a small charity in Dumfries Scotland for a living, breathing Nigerian family? So much for those much vaunted Civil Service entrance exams. It was almost as if they were deliberately making a mistake. It was almost as if they were deliberately trying to make the environment as hostile as they possibly could.....

Perish the thought.

So Florence appealed the decision. And I wrote another letter. And once again she is waiting for a decision from the Home Office. And yet another four months has drifted by. And all the money we collected has run out. And somehow every month, by hook or by crook, we manage to cobble up the wherewithal to cover the rent.

Assuming the Home Office acknowledges the plainly obvious fact that Florence hasn't a penny to her name, then she will be able to send in an application for 'leave to remain'. And then what? Many more months of waiting. There is no argument about what the answer will eventually be, by the way. Thomas has lived in the UK for nine of his eleven years, which means he has an automatic right to stay here. And for so long as we stay signed up to the European Charter for Human Rights, he has a right to have a mother in his life, which means Florence will also be allowed to stay. Would any Scottish Judge deport Abigail? Very unlikely.

When the family is eventually granted their 'leave to remain', it will only be for two and a half years. They will still not be allowed any public funds whatsoever, but they will finally be allowed to work. And after two and a half years, they will need to apply again to have the 'leave to remain' extended.

And this time they will be required to pay £4500 for their extension.

When they work, they will pay their taxes but they will still not be eligible for any benefits whatsoever. They will each pay £500 for access to the NHS.

After five years, same again. Another renewal form. Another £4500. At least. The Home Office ramps up its fees every years.

After seven and a half years, same again. Another form. Another £4500.

And after ten years, same again. Another form. Another £4500. But this time the leave to remain will be forever. And having worked and paid taxes for a decade, the family will finally be allowed access to public funds. They will finally be citizens.

By the way, I should point out that Florence has already worked and paid taxes here for many years when she had a work permit. She was a carer.

A few months ago, I received a call from Louise who told me she was making a documentary for the BBC. 'Breadline Kids'. A snapshot of child poverty in Scotland. Would any of our clients be willing to play a part in the programme? She was hoping I would put her in touch with one of the families living off our food parcels. Instead I told her all about Florence and Abigail and Thomas. I told her about the utter and absolute poverty they were enduring as a result of Theresa May's 'Hostile Environment'. And I told her about the staggering grace and dignity of these wonderful people.

And of course I told her their real names - Christiana and Dami and John.

And I told her I reckoned John would be a complete star.

Well, Louise came to Dumfries and she met the family and tomorrow night they will be appearing on BBC 1 at nine o' clock. If you follow this link, you can check out the programme trailer.


Will seeing the family on the TV nudge the Home Office to a small degree of human decency? It would be nice if it did. In the mean time, they are still hanging in there and waiting on the post. And every month First Base somehow manages to find another £420 to cover the rent. And by hook or by crook we will continue to do so. Because if we fail and this splendid family is torn apart and Christiana and Dami are cast out onto the streets, well, I don't think any of us at First Base could live with that kind of failure.

So here it is. Of course it is. The final link for you to follow. Our JustGiving page is still very much alive and any help any of you can give us to make sure a roof stays over the family's head would be an absolute godsend.      


Thursday, January 25, 2018

WELL AT LEAST MOSCOW STILL SEEMS TO LIKE ME. LONDON...? MAYBE NOT SO MUCH!

At the end of last week's edition of Question Time my phone pinged with a text message from an old college mate. He had clocked that Dumfries was due to host the show tonight and said he was looking forward to seeing me on the box. In fact news of the Beeb's flagship show coming to town had briefly swept across the social media a few months ago. Links were shared and I duly filled in the forms for Carol and myself without for a minute thinking we would be let anywhere near the sainted Dimbleby and his panel.

I texted my pal to inform him the chances of catching my ugly mug on the big screen were well south of zero. Both the TV and radio versions of Question Time have become something of a thing among the 'YES' movement over the last few years. You only need to watch or listen to any episode to realise the BBC will go to all kinds of lengths to ensure a nice fat majority of roaring Unionists in the room.

A couple of years ago I had a fuming dog walk whilst listening to a podcast of the radio version. The broadcast purported to come Dundee. You know the place. The so called 'YES' city where almost three quarters of the population support independence. Bearing this in mind, it seemed somewhat strange when a rousing chorus of boos poured through my earphones every time the word 'Independence' was mentioned.

I wrote a raging blog about it and an explanation soon appeared in the comments section. The show was aired from a small village a few miles out of the city and audience selection was sub contracted out to a true blue committee from the village hall. There was no bus service from the city to the village. Mr Putin must have been quietly impressed, as would 'Joey the Crip' Goebbels.

Well Dumfries is far from being a 'YES' town. In 2014 Dumfries and Galloway voted to carry on hanging onto Westminster's apron strings by a whopping two to one. So much for the efforts of the likes of me who had campaigned in the other direction. BBC Scotland laid on a live radio debate and I got an invite to team up with Mike Russell to put the 'YES' side of the argument. I wasn't entirely surprised to be the token 'Ordinary Joe' in the midst of three professional politicians. The guys from the local BBC actually asked me if I know of any fellow 'Ordinary Joes' who were willing to front up for Better Together. I didn't. It didn't seem like there were any to be found.

Over the years I have done countless comment spots for the local BBC. Sometimes they have wanted my take on a drug story or a crime story. Other times they have wanted to get the low down on local poverty and hunger. Whenever we have sent out a press release about something we feel is important, they have almost always given us air time.

All of which would suggest a seat in the audience for Question Time wouldn't be too big an ask. Well I guess in a Walt Disney world where impartiality and fairness rule the roost such a thing might be possible. Aye right. All of us who have been arguing for Scottish Independence over the last few years have long lost any kind of wide eyed innocence when it comes to the media in general and the BBC in particular.

Every game is rigged by guys who have been rigging games on behalf of the British Empire for the last four hundred years. They are old hands. Dab hands. Sadly for them, the Empire is a somewhat shrunken affair these days and Scotland is the last colony of any great worth. Little wonder they are hanging on with such frantic tenacity.

The written press drips out poison to order on a daily basis. The owners have clearly been given a crystal clear message from the corridors of Westminster power. If you want us to play nice with you, well we expect you to play nice with us. And basically that means a constant, unrelenting attack on Scottish Independence and all who sail in her.

My favourite recent example is the Unionist outrage over new Scottish mothers receiving a free 'Baby Box' care of the tax payer. There have been howls of outrage at hard working families being fleeced. In a series of brutal attacks, the Unionist papers claimed almost 30% of new Scottish mothers are not using the free cot and instead are choosing to buy a new one.

Now you best brace yourself here. These wicked baby boxes are costing each and every one of us Scottish tax payers £4 each. £4!! When a government does something so utterly wicked and despicable, thank god we have our magnificent men of the press to shine a light on it.

To get a handle on just how wicked and disgraceful this £4 we are paying really is we need to compare it to an example of true value for money. As subjects of London, we are required to contribute our fair share to any major investment which is deemed to be of vital 'national importance'. You know - Cross rail, Trident, Hinkley Point, the M25. That kind of thing. Basically anything which is south of Birmingham and costs a shed load. This is why each and every one of us is required to cough up over £2000 for HS2, a railway which is unlikely to come within 150 miles of our border. Now this is what you call real value for money. A copper bottomed investment for any Scottish tax payer. No wonder the press were so upset at us having to pay £4 each for baby boxes. Thank Christ these lads have our backs!

It has become painfully obvious the BBC have completely caved to Westminster pressure. They watch a succession of ministers beat a path to Rupert Murdoch's door to lick his shoes and wet themselves in terror. Please don't privatise us.... please don't take away our lovely licence fee.... please don't listen to that horrid little Australian gnome.... please don't take our lovely pensions away ... oh pleeeaaaaaassseeee..... We'll do anything.... anything you ask... you don't like those Scottish Nationalist types... fine... neither do we.. we hate the bastards.... hate them, hate them, hate them.... we'll show them.... just wait and see..... oh please don't take my pension away..........

So, no. I'm not surprised to be watching Question Time on the tele tonight. I have no doubt my name is on plenty of lists. The 'Enemy Within' lists. The mate who sent the text probably thought Carol and I would have been given the nod as managers of our region's busiest food bank. And if we had kept our mouths shut about Independence, I am sure we would have got our invitation to the ball. But the BBC are required to paint a very particular picture for the world to tune into tonight. And whenever the word 'Independence' is uttered the boos with shake the room. The demanded message will be duly delivered.

Nobody here wants IndyRef 2!! Everyone HATES the idea of Indyref 2!!! We all absolutely know our place here!!! We are poor and pathetic and weak and wretched. We are forever grateful to be given the chance to live our miserable little lives care of scraps from London's table. We are lazy and fat and thick and poor and we are each and every one of us smack addicts in the making.

Is that OK, sir? Really. Oh thank goodness.... and my pension.......

So London doesn't like me. I don't suppose I will lose any sleep. I still have my pals in Moscow when all is said and done. I haven't written many blogs over the last couple of months. And when I don't post anything new, visits to my page slow down to a trickle. And of course if my page goes quiet for too long, then it might not jump out as the first hit when someone types 'Mark Frankland' into Google. I can't say I have ever worried about this, but there are pals from the East who worry about it on my behalf. You see, every time my page is in danger of going to sleep it suddenly receives a flood of enthusiastic visitors from Russia. They come in their hundreds. They pick me up and dust me down and push me back into the limelight.

Rather alarmingly this puts me in the same camp as Trump and Le Pen and 'Alternative for Germany' and Marine Le Pen. It has been this way ever since the 2014 Referendum. Someone, somewhere deep in an FSB cyber farm, my name must have been put forward and accepted. I guess I was deemed to be a thorn in London's side and therefore worthy of some online support from Putin's merry men. No doubt one day this unasked for and rather unwelcome support will be used by Unionists to name and shame me as a fascist lackey of Putin's Russia. Well such is life I guess. Nothing I can do about it when all is said and done.

Oddly enough, I reckon the reason for this page receiving so much love from Moscow is exactly the same reason why I will not be in the Question Time audience tonight.

It's Trident of course.

London has no love for Scotland. The Tories in particular must sometimes yearn to ditch a place where so few people vote for them. But any such wishes are well and truly trumped by good old Trident. Those missiles are the very last vestige of British global power. London once ruled over an Empire over which the sun never set. Now the Empire is down to Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, the Falklands and an archipelago of tax haven islands. Without Trident, London would be a bit part player. The old drunken uncle with all those well worn tales of his youth who everyone avoids at Christmas.

If we won our independence and gave London an eviction order for Faslane and Coulport, it is pretty clear there is nowhere else willing to play host to the treasured missiles and thereby become number one on Moscow's thermonuclear hit list. Trident is the main reason why London will continue to hang on to us with such unholy desperation.

On the flip side of things, Moscow is well enough aware that just about every one of the missiles on a Trident submarine are targeted at Russian cities. Not surprisingly they are not over keen on this idea. So not surprisingly, they must kind of like the idea of an Independent Scotland kicking the nukes out. So they offer their online support to likes of me.

This week, the Army's top brass have been out and about telling us we might struggle to take on the Russians should they decide to attack us. Apparently we need to spent lots and lots more. Nobody seems to ask the question of just why on earth the Russians would have any wish whatsoever to invade us. We are surely their most useful ally. The City of London launders all their grubby cash and delivers it all starched and clean. We have made Mayfair and Belgravia available to them and their oligarchs' offspring are lovingly educated in our public schools. They are about as likely to pick a fight with us as a drug lord is likely to behead his accountant.

Oops. I shouldn't have said that. Vladimir might not like it. Sorry Vladimir. Just a slip of the tongue. Please forgive me. London doesn't like me. I really don't want to lose my friends from Moscow....

What a barking mad world we live in!

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

SCOTLAND IS A PLACE WHERE EVERY NOW AND THEN WE HAVE THE CHANCE TO GET TWO AND TWO TO MAKE FIVE.



A few days ago I had a chat on the phone with Iwona. She works for an outfit called Resource Efficient Scotland and on the surface of things, her job should be pretty straight forward. Her task is to make something happen which just about every man and his dog thinks should happen. Basically, she has an open door to push at.

We all get wound up by the stories on the news about all the millions of tonnes of perfectly good food which make their way into bursting at the seams landfill sites. Well of course we do. It would be ridiculous not to. In a hungry world, such waste is blatantly inexcusable. It is inexcusable when there are still countries where famine holds sway. It is inexcusable here at home in our country where over a million people a year need to come to places like First Base for their daily bread.

Iwona's task is to put the right people together. In the blue corner, we have a food company who is dumping edible grub into the skips out back. In the red corner, we have the places where the hungry come to eat. Simple, right?

Well it isn't, actually. Anything but I'm afraid. In fact it is something I think those of us involved in food banks probably need to explain. 

Just before Christmas Aldi sent out a Facebook Post inviting the likes of First Base to pitch up on Christmas Eve to collect any fresh stuff they hadn't sold. I reckon this message must have been forwarded on to me by at least fifty people. And of course it was really good of them to think of us. So did we pitch up on Christmas Eve to fill the boot? Actually, no. There would have been no point. By the time we re-opened the doors after the break, all of the food would have been past its sell by date and we would have been loading the van back up and looking for a dump willing to take the waste food.

This, by the way, is harder than you might think. The lads at the dump have been ferociously drilled to keep an eye out for anyone who is not bone fide Joe Public. Time and again I have to argue the toss when trying to get rid of First Base waste. Come on lads, we're a charity. A bloody food bank for Christ's sake. Surely you're not expecting us to pay? But they are expecting exactly that. To be honest, getting rid of waste is a whole lot harder than buying food.

Our problem when it comes to accepting fresh food with a short sell by date is pretty simple. I have no clue whatsoever how many people will come through our doors tomorrow. Our record busy day is fifty people. Our record quiet day is no people. It could be literally anything between. So if we accept fresh food and then have a couple of quiet days, I find myself dodging around town trying to persuade the lads at the dump to cut me a break and let me chuck stuff in the skips.

Then we have a problem which is more particular to First Base. The stretch of Dumfries and Galloway we try to support is basically huge. 3400 square miles to be precise. 3400 miles of drop dead gorgeous postcard country with pockets of poverty where all too many folk lack the means to buy food. If someone in Moffat, which is twenty something miles from Dumfries, receives a referral for one of our food parcels it isn't really worth the paper it is written on. A return bus fare from Moffat to Dumfries is a tenner and if the person had a tenner, well they wouldn't need a food parcel, right?

So over the last three years we have set up a network of over twenty pick up points where people can collect a food parcel. Thanks to the support of the Council, most of these collection points are local libraries. This makes a whole bunch of sense when you think about it. A library is open. It is staffed. The electric bill is being paid. It is known and it is accessible. To add a stock of food parcels to everything else they do adds zero extra cost. You could almost say it is a way to get two and two to make five.

It took a while for people to get their heads around the idea of going to the library for emergency food, but now all of the libraries distribute more parcels with every passing month. The food is in plain boxes and each box has enough to feed one person three meals a day for four days. But here's the thing. We have to be careful not to be taking up too much space so everything has to be seriously space efficient which means lots of dried food in packets - instant custard, instant mash, cup soup, savoury rice, noodles... you get the picture. It basically makes no sense to be carting water around the countryside.

And of course fresh food is completely out of the question. Every item in the box needs to have a long shelf life.

So fresh food would basically be no use at all for 50% of the food parcels we issue. We do have some fresh items available for the people who come to our main base in Dumfries. Every week we receive fifty loaves of bread from Greggs and seventy packets of sliced ham from Brown Brothers in Kelloholm. We also buy in packs of margarine. All three of these items have plenty of shelf life which means nothing ever goes to waste.

So I can understand why Iwona beat a path to our door. Of course she did. Surely an outfit handing out 5000 food parcels a year would be the perfect place to take some of the wasted food everyone is so agitated about.

I took her through all the logistical problems listed above and we had a chew at the fat. What if someone opened up one of the town's many boarded up shops an offered a range of fresh food for anyone to collect? Maybe, but the overheads would be hard to cover. There would have to be at least one member of paid staff. A vehicle. Fuel costs. An electric bill. A water bill. A phone bill. Fridges and freezers and food safety training. No chance of any change out of sixty grand a year.

And then of course there is the stigma thing. Would people be willing to be seen going into such a shop by their gossip loving neighbours? Not a chance. Maybe in a big city, but no chance in the small towns where so many take such delight in the troubles of others. It is the nastiness which is played out every minute of every day at the counters of Post Offices and Spar Shops. All too many of us would rather go hungry than suffer the thought of her from three doors down having a field day telling everyone how she clocked us going into the 'poor' shop.

But what if such a place sold food a heavily discounted prices? That would mean everyone in the community would use it and the stigma would be duly erased, surely? Maybe. Personally I don't see things working out all that well. The more savvy members of the community with cars would land up at opening time to get the pick of the litter whilst those without resources would be left to pick away at the left overs. And slowly but surely the new shop would eat away at the bottom line of the local shop where people go to top up the gas and electric and to buy all kinds of stuff not available in the community shop. Net result? The local shop closes and the community has yet another boarded up window.

Community kitchens where everyone can sit down together for a nice hot meal? Maybe, but the stigma still gets in the way.

For half an hour or so I felt guilty about being such a negative old sod, but Iwona's enthusiasm remained heroically undented. Where there's a will, there's a way, right?

And then all of a sudden, there it was. The two plus two makes five thing.

The opportunity? - lots of good grub is being chucked away and food businesses are having to pay for the privilege of chucking it.

The problem? - Cost and stigma.

So what have we got here? We've got food which needs the right home and we need to find a way of getting the food to people who need it without it costing anything. Is there a similar deal to be found to the First Base/library thing?

Well maybe there is, and it could possibly go something like this.

Up here in Scotland we do criminal justice and prisons much better than south of the Border. The reason for this is actually straight forward. Thankfully our Government in Edinburgh tends to develop policy on the back of evidence rather than pandering to the nastiness and prejudice of the Daily Mail. Almost all of our jails remain publically owned and therefore they have not descended
into the kinds of chaotic, privatised hell we see in England. More to the point, we have woken up to the fact that sending people to jail should be a last resort to be used only for hard core criminals.

Sheriffs have been issued with crystal clear instructions. If the crime ain't worth at least a year served in jail, then find another punishment - usually community service. This has the benefit of being a whole hell of a lot cheaper and it actually tends to work. If you lock someone up, you make them all but unemployable and things get worse. Community service gives them a chance to turn over a new leaf and to turn things around.

So we now have loads more people serving out their community payback hours. In fact there are so many, the guys in charge are struggling to find them things to do. They turn up in the morning to a place where there is a supervisor and a van. Then they head out to pay back the community for whatever they have done.

Think about it. A supervisor who is already being paid. A van which is already dieseled up and paid for. So the van could maybe head out on a milk run around food companies with waste food. Extra cost? Zero.

Then what? Well the Council has thousands of elderly citizens who it gives care to. It's free up here by the way. Another thing we do differently to England. But there are many, many old people to care for and less and less money to pay for the care. All too often the daily support visit is a hurried twenty minute affair. Which means we have thousands of our elderly living lives of aching loneliness and isolation.

Well maybe we could give them another point of human contact. A daily visit from the lads and lasses on the van. It would be a chance for them to get out of the house to pick out some items. And to have a chat. And to have the items carried in and put away. And is there anything else you need doing, missus? Coal in? Bin liner out? Any maybe in the fullness of time, cakes might be baked and tea brewed. A truly profitable human transaction where both sides benefit equally. The isolated, lonely pensioner gets some company and the sound of human voices. And the lads and lasses on the van? They get some self respect. Some self regard. They get to feel like worthwhile human beings who are actually treated as such rather than being written off as the Daily Mail's favourite scumbags.

Would it lead to more people using community service to turn their lives around? I reckon it would. After working in First Base for all these years, it is impossible to underestimate what treating people with respect can achieve.

Iwona liked the idea and I promised to pitch it to Rob Davidson, the deputy leader of the Council. So I called him up and duly pushed at an open door with well oiled hinges. I knew Rob would like it. When two and two makes five, what is there not to like? The only time it is deemed preferable to choose the two and two makes one option is when you are reduced to doing the bidding of the Daily Mail and all who sail in it. Thankfully Rob isn't a Daily Mail kind of guy. He is the kind of guy who would avoid its poison at all costs.

Of course he liked it. So I passed his details on to Iwona and bowed out. 

Will it happen? I certainly hope so. It is the kind of thing that can happen up here where new ideas do not have to slavishly pander to the dripping poison of the tabloid press. It is the kind of thing which makes me see just how much better things will be for all of us once we finally cut through the Westminster plasticuffs. 

For me this is what an Independent Scotland will be all about. It has nothing to do with blood and soil. Instead it all about becoming more and more Scandinavian. 

A place where two and two can become five.     

Thursday, January 11, 2018

NO WONDER THE CHINESE ARE LAUGHING THEIR SOCKS OFF AT US


I have spent the last few day consumed with jealousy. I guess every writer on earth must be feeling much the same. Why? Simple. In a nutshell it goes something like this:

Michael Wolff - oh you lucky bastard.

Just in case you have been living under a rock in the middle of the Kalahari desert for the last week or so, Michael Wolff is the lucky bastard who penned 'Fire and Fury'.

When his publishers brought forward the release date of the book to trump the 'cease and desist' efforts of Trump's lawyers, I eagerly hopped onto Audible to download a talking version and his words have been pouring through my headphones ever since. It took about ten minutes of listening for me to be well and truly hooked and duty bound to get onto Amazon to order up a copy for Carol.

And here is where the jealousy really kicked in. New book, only available in hardback. There are rules of thumb for this kind of thing. Cover price, £20. Amazon price, £10. Kindle price, usually about £7. Well that is how things generally pan out. Well not this time. Cover price, £20. Amazon price, £17. Kindle price £14. Bloody hell. A lousy £3 discount. But there was more to come. I whacked a copy into my basket and hit checkout only to be told there wasn't a book to be had and I would have to wait in line with God knows how many others whilst the print presses glowed red with the effort of keeping up with demand.

Like I said. Lucky bastard! Soon YouTube was full of pictures of midnight mobs milling around American bookshops. Never in the history of pen being put to paper has anyone ever made it so big by sitting on a sofa and not being noticed. So it's hats off I guess. And raging jealousy. At least the whole thing offers proof positive that there is plenty of power still to be found in the pen.

For a couple of years President Xchi Jinping of China was feeling a degree of heat. Hundreds of millions of his minions were showing signs of restlessness. Kentucky chicken and cheap TV sets were all well and good but they were starting get a craving for the odd pinch of democracy here and there. For a while Xchi started to reconcile himself to the idea. And then one by one, the electorates of the West started to collectively lose their marbles and a small grin appeared on the face of Mr Inscrutable. 

Come on guys. You're all telling me I should stump up some democracy. Really? Have you been watching that shiny new TV of yours? I think you need to realise what democracy gets you. It's called Trump and Brexit. Is that really what you want.....

And of course all those hundreds of millions of smart Chinamen recoiled in horror at the very idea of their country becoming a laughing stock and duly dumped the idea firmly in the bin. There is no talk of more democracy in China any more. They've got the message. They have seem how a totalitarian outfit can crack on and build a hundred new airports in the time it takes the British Government make its mind up about where to build one new runway. Not actually build the thing by the way.

'Fire and Fury' completes the case Xchi has been making for years. The dream of Aristotle has morphed into a surreal nightmare where millions of supposedly sane people choose to send an illiterate idiot into the job of being the most powerful man in the world.

Of course Trump's swaggering idiocy will always eat up every minute the media has available to put on our plate. Who would ever have  thought the President of the 'Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave' could manage to make Homer Simpson look like a smart and canny sort of a guy.

Are we any better? Hardly. We are just less spectacular when it comes to our car crashing. I suppose we never could keep up with Hollywood in that regard. In terms of complete, irresponsible incompetence we are right up there with the Donald and his cronies.

Check out this week's pitiful Cabinet re-shuffle. Downing St briefed out there were going to be more women around the table offering proof the Tories were better than a creaking shell company fronting up for a dwindling bunch of octogenarian racists and a bunch of tax dodging hedge fund types.

Things didn't take long to go well and truly south. Justine Greening spat the dummy and told her Prime Minister she could shove the Department of Pensions where the sun didn't shine and resigned. Which meant Mrs May had lost a comprehensive educated lesbian from Rotherham and a vital plank in her bid to portray the Tories as a modern and human.

Shit, shit, shit, SHIT........

We need more women! Any women. Just find me one. We promised to unveil a better look....... We promised a fucking photo!!!

Well boss, how's about this. We bin off the Immigration Minister and give the job to a woman. Then we spin a line. Something like this. Brexit means Immigration is big news, right? I mean fucking huge, yeah? So huge that the Immigration Minister needs to sit in on cabinet meetings. Yeah? See where I'm going here.... It means another pair of high heels in the photo opportunity....

OK.....

I think I like it....

Anyone in mind.....

Not really. Who gives a shit really. It just needs to be a genuine female. Christ, I don't know. What about Caroline Nokes? She's a safe pair of hands. Quiet as a mouse and always does as she's told.

You sure about that. I don't want another Anna fucking Soubry....

No. She's fine. True Blue and loyal. Wouldn't say boo to a goose.

And she's a woman.

100%. To the core.

Sod it. Get her on the phone.... does she know anything about immigration?

I haven't a Scooby. She's from Kent so she's probably pissed of with too many towel heads hiding in the back of trucks.

Work experience?

She was Chief Executive of the Pony Club....

For fuck's sake.... anyway we're all out of time. Just get her on the bloody phone..

"Caroline........"

And so here we are. Hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals are living in a constant state of gnawing fear whilst the Home Office grinds slowly to a halt and in order to get enough females into a photo opportunity around the Cabinet Table we now have the former chief executive of the Pony Club as the person tasked with steering the post Brexit immigration policy. 

This pathetic pantomime is all too similar to the even more pathetic pantomime which gets played out every single day in the White House. Every time Trump Tweets out yet another burst of vicious bile we wonder how on earth 30% of Americans can continue to support him.

Well fair enough, but it is hard not to be drawn to the words pot, kettle and black. We Scots are supposed to be an instinctively canny bunch and yet 50% of us continue to sign on to the belief that it is a great thing to be ruled by these inept clowns in Westminster.

A couple of days ago Dr Philippa Whitford MP threw a statistic down onto the floor of the House of Commons which really shouldn't have been to hard for even the very stupidest voter to understand: in Scotland we have 4 NHS beds per 1000 head of population. In England they have 2.3 NHS beds per 1000 head of population. It's why our A&E waiting times are so much shorter. It's why our treatment is so much better. Why is this? Do we have a whole lot more cash to spend that they have south of the border? No. What we do is spend all the cash on the NHS rather than siphoning it into the grasping hands of the private sector.

This kind of story is replicated in almost every areas where we are allowed to govern ourselves.

And yet we still have 50% of our people blindly signing on the dotted line to be screwed by London for ever and ever amen. 

So we do not have any right to laugh at the Americans who continue to cheer lead Trump. We Scots of course are deemed far too simple and child-like to be allowed to make our own decisions about immigration. Immigration is a big boys issue which is way above our meagre abilities. Much better we leave this issue in the hands of the great Caroline Nokes MP, ex British Pony Club.

Holy bloody Christ.

So go on Xchi. I know you are duty bound to keep up the inscrutable Asian thing, but I think it would be OK if you let that small smile widen just a tad. 

We really are truly laughable.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

MY MEMORIES OF A TRULY CRAZY DIAMOND WHO DIDN'T HALF SHINE


I have been putting off writing this for days. I guess the required words have been elusive. Or maybe not. Maybe putting them up on the screen just makes the whole thing more real than I want it to be. Outside the window, a hard cold December dawn is ushering in another hard cold December day. The snow in the field has frozen over and it won't be so very long before our donkey, Olive, starts to let me know in no uncertain terms that she wants her hay

It was another hard cold December day when I walked into First Base, took one look at Lesley's face, and knew straight away someone was gone. If you work in a place where the wreckage of addiction washes up, you really need to learn how to deal with death. After 14 years I am still waiting. I stopped counting the losses many years ago. Too painful. How many will it be? Over fifty certainly. Probably many more. Some are vaguely familiar faces from the front counter. A couple of food parcels. A moan about the shitness of life. Some black humour. Got any coffee pal?

Others are harder to take. The ones you get to know well. The ones you hope will one day find their way to a better place. Tinker and Mary and Callum and James and Andrew and Fitzy and Jason.

And now Brodie.

When Lesley said his name I felt like something drained out of me. And for the umpteenth time I wanted to give him a good shake. For Christ's bloody sake Brodie...

But this time it isn't about a stretch inside or patching things up after yet another bout of idiocy. This time it's for keeps.

He used to call me his mentor. He'd come bowling in with a shopping trolley full of problems and ask is it was OK to use the phone. When he used the phone he adopted a telephone voice which would have done for holding a conversation with someone standing on the other side of a football pitch. After a scatter gun of sentences her would inevitably say "Can you have a word with Mark. He's my mentor. He'll explain..."

And with that he would thrust the phone into my hand and leave me to try and unpick the latest spaghetti tangle he'd gotten his life into.

Mentor. Some bloody mentor. The net result of all my so called efforts of mentoring was Brodie lying dead in a Cornwall doorway in the weak light of a hard cold December dawn.

Sometimes when we lose a client it is just about possible to find a philosophical way of dealing with the news. These are the broken ones. The ones unlucky enough to be born with barely a card to play. The ones for whom every single lousy day is a torment. The ones who just aren't wired right for the twenty first century.

That wasn't Brodie. Brodie could have been more on less anything. He had the lot. Smart. Charismatic. Overflowing with energy and life. A gentle giant who careered through life like a drunken giraffe wearing a kilt. 

And we have all kinds of well worn statements for times like this. He was a force of nature. He was one of a kind. You know the kind of thing. I guess my well worn statement would be 'he was born at the wrong time.'

Our spreadsheet century was always going to be too safe and grey and dreary for Brodie. He instinctively hunted for an edge to live on and never really found it. Had he been born in the 1850's, I could see him as one of those Scottish explorers who blazed a trail through the darkest heart of Africa winning over the locals every step of the way with his shambling charm. Had he been born into the time of our World Wars, I can easily see him winning the Victoria Cross for a act of suicidal heroism.

The edge which drew him time and again was all about drugs and booze. Brodie didn't do hedonism to blank out and forget. Instead he did it like a raging rock star. He was drawn to excess and risk and he was forever convinced of his Captain Scarlett indestructability.

So was I for Christ's sake. This wasn't supposed to happen to Brodie. He was supposed to find a tailor made stage to shake the world to the bloody core. Not a doorway in Cornwall on a cold hard December dawn.


A couple of years ago he bounced up the stairs with his life in a familiar mess. He asked if it was OK if he made a coffee. Sure. Fire away. You've never seen anything quite like a Brodie coffee. It went something along lines of three heaped teaspoons of coffee, four heaped teaspoons of Coffeemate, four heaped teaspoons of sugar and a healthy splash of milk. Yeah. I know.

He wanted me to be the mentor. I basically gave him the usual bollocking whilst he grinned back at me. You crave risk, right? Right. And there's no bone in your body which is able to accept normality, right? Right. So to find your risk you take on board mental amounts of booze and drugs in some poxy Lochside flat, right? Right. And he shook his head in vague wonder at the level of his idiocy.

So I hit YouTube and showed him videos of the refugee camp on the Hungarian border where the Syrian refugees had been stopped in their tracks by barbed wire and snapping Alsatians and hard guys with semi-automatics. Come on lad. Here's a proper edge. Ryan Air will get you to Klagenfurt for £30. Then you can hitch it. Just pitch up and announce yourself. I'm Brodie and I'm here to help. And when he left the Agency he was all set to do it.

But he didn't. Instead he headed south and set his stall out to become the Bob Dylan of the new millennium on the streets of Bristol. Sometimes things went well. Other times not so much. He was made for busking. It meant being out in the fresh air all day and meeting the people of the world one at a time. Let's face it, he was no Bob Dylan but his easy charm guaranteed there was always enough in his cap to get by. He once told me all about the new business model he had discovered. It involved busking at two in the morning when people spilled out onto the pavement from pubs and clubs. When people were pissed up and not so bothered about how much they dropped in his cap. Most people would have been worried about getting beaten up and robbed. Not Brodie. He was Captain Scarlett. 

Until he wasn't.

It seems this was his game on the night the lights went out. Late night busking for the pre Christmas club crowd. I guess he must have decided to get his head down for ten minutes. I gather he had turned a corner. No drugs. Less booze. A new partner. Even plans to hit the gym.

Just ten minutes. Just forty winks. Just like a hundred times before. Cold night? No big deal for Captain Scarlett.

It seems even Captain Scarlett isn't immune from the cold.
For a while he joined us on the road doing our drug and alcohol presentations in schools. He was convinced he would one day manage to get through one of these gigs without accidentally swearing. Never happened. The kids would beam at the tall crazy guy who would smack himself around the head in punishment for letting a swear word out. Teachers would try hard to hide their smiles. And I would roll my eyes.

One day he regaled a class of S4's with the tale of a night which involved way too much blue Valium. It involved breaking into a garden shed and liberating a set of golf clubs and them a prolonged game of 'street golf' through the early hours of a Dumfries morning. The cops picked him up on the back nine. We had an argument about this in the car. I bollocked him for glamourising things. He said the kids deserved the truth. About Valium fuelled street golf? Really Brodie?

He really, really wanted to make a difference. To lay out the cheap drudgery of a life revolving around getting off the head on anything that came to hand. It wasn't his fault that his charisma always shone through. Instead of putting the kids off, he must have appeared like a modern version of Jack Kerouac's Dean Moriarty.

It is more or less fully light now. And yet the world is darker than it should be. When lads like Brodie depart the stage the world is always darker. It is like seeing the lights switched off in a house on a dark hill. We have more than enough grey. The Brodies are few and far between.

Now friends of the family are raising the funds to bring him home for his funeral. I have just donated on behalf of everyone at First Base. Here is the link.



I guess I should wind up but I don't really know how. I don't want to hit the key for the last full stop. Was I really a mentor? Not really. More a sounding board. A service station on the manic lane hopping motorway of his life.

You know what. I'm going to subcontract out the job of finding the right words. I'm leaving it to Pink Floyd. Because Brodie was indeed a crazy diamond who didn't half shine.

"Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun.


Shine on you crazy diamond.

Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky.

Shine on you crazy diamond.

You were caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom, blown on the steel breeze.

Come on you target for faraway laughter, come on you stranger, 
you legend, you martyr, and shine!

You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon.


Shine on you crazy diamond.

Threatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light.

Shine on you crazy diamond.

Well you wore out your welcome with random precision, rode on the steel breeze.

Come on you raver, you seer of visions, come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!"

Thursday, November 16, 2017

IT'S A MESSED UP, MUDDLED UP, SHOOK UP WORLD

There is something very African about the money out here in Uganda. For a start, cash goes by the name of 'Shillings', a throwback to the days not so long ago when the British Empire had a firm boot stomped down on the neck of the nation. And then there is the thing about how many Ugandan Shillings you get for one of our British Pounds.


Five thousand.


It means you need to dust off your 'big number' maths skills to work out what something costs. The fat wedge of cash you see me handing over at the top of the page is seven and a half million Ugandan Shillings. Are you up for some mental maths? Seven and a half million divided by five thousand?



Any of you with the mental agility to come up with £1500 is better at this kind of thing than I am.

Carol and I are both in total agreement about this particular £1500 - it is by far and away the most pleasing money we have ever spent. The precise nature of the transaction which we had just shaken on in the picture was seven and a half million Ugandan shillings for 3000 packs of Always Maxi Thick sanitary towels. This we are assured is enough to meet the needs of every one of the 250 female pupils at the Kamuganguzi Janan Lewan Memorial (KJLM) Secondary School for the next year.

What numbers can describe the impact of this? Well lack of sanitary ware means the girls are missing an average of 50 school days per year. And they do long school days out here. Lessons start at eight and end at five with an hour off in the middle of the day for 'Posho' and beans. You only have to take the briefest of glances into one of the classrooms to see how every word of the teacher is hungrily absorbed. Families have to make vast sacrifices to pay for their children to receive secondary education and the children know it. Every minute is made to count. 

If one person can achieve the grades to secure a well paid regular job, then they are then able to look after an extended family of up to thirty.

So. Fifty extra days of class time a year? Four hundred extra hours of class time per year? That equates to a jaw dropping 100,000 extra hours for the 250 girls at Kamuganguzi Janan Lewan Memorial (KJLM) Secondary School.

Maybe these extra hours might tip the scales for twenty of the girls. Maybe these extra hours will be the key to better 'O' and 'A' level results and twenty good jobs which otherwise might not have been reachable.

Maybe.

And at this point the maths become even more eye watering. I will assume each of the girls has an extended family of 25. So an extra 500 people are provided for. Secondary school fees are covered for many more children of the generations to come.

And so on it goes. This is how the so called developing world can roll. The ripples caused by a fairly small pebble in the pond can run and run.

Yesterday Penina, the school's deputy head, told us about the gut churning sadness she feels every time a talented pupil is forced to drop out. She told us how they would often as not 'go to the stones'.

'The stones' are the place underneath the bottom rung of the ladder. You go to the stones when there is nowhere else to go. When an unusually ferocious storm lashes the hillsides hard enough, the structure of the earth is disturbed and a landslide moves a few hundred tonnes of soil and rock. This leaves the underlying rocks open and exposed and a new quarry is born. 

Family groups make their way to the opened earth to break the stone down into different sizes with hammers. The oldest worker on the site might be a grandmother in her seventies. The youngest workers are under five. The rate of pay is measured in plastic washing up bowls. 

So you take a basketball sized stone and smash away at it until you have enough gravel to fill up a plasic washing up bowl. How long does such a task take? I have no idea. It would take me ages and my hands would be a mess of blisters by the time my bowl was ready for inspection.

A full bowl of freshly smashed gravel weighs in at 200 Ugandan Shillings. This can sound like a tidy sum when you think in terms of Oliver Twist or taking the 'Queen's Shilling'. In reality it doesn't get you much.

If you buy a hard boiled egg from a ten year old trainee entrepreneur on the streets of Kabale Town, it will set you back five hundred shillings. So to earn enough to buy a single hard boiled egg you need to smash up enough stone to fill two and a half washing up bowls with gravel. Three and a half bowls gives you enough to pick up a roasted corn cob.

A room for the night of the most basic type? 25 washing up bowls worth.

Forty hours a week of work at our new minimum wage in Scotland would be enough to trade in for 1.7 million Ugandan Shillings. A lot, right? Sure it's a lot. More to the point, it is 8500 plastic washing up bowls worth of smashed up gravel.

Realistically, how many bowls could I fill in a week if the skin on my hands actually allowed me to wield a hammer for forty hours? Twenty? Twenty Five? I have no idea. Enough for ten hard boiled eggs? Eight roasted cobs of corn? No wonder it breaks Penina's heart when a talented pupil drops our of class to 'go to the stones'.

OK. Time for som even bigger maths. Huge, ginormous maths. When we get back home it will be time to get the show on the road and to try and raise some funds to provide enough sanitary ware for another three schools. I plan to drop a line to Liverpool's new star African striker, Sadio Mane. Sadio hails from Senegal and I guess he will be all too familiar with how life is for those who have no other choice than to 'go to the stones'. Maybe he might have had to go to the stones himself had he not been born with such a God given talent.

I guess Sadio will be earning somewhere in the region of £150,000 a week. So here goes. That is seven hundred and fifty million Ugandan Shillings. And that is three million and a three quarter million washing up bowls of smashed up stone. Wait for it. If you were line up this many washing up bowls filled with smashed up stone, the line would be eight hundred and fifty miles long. At my optimistic rate of filling 25 bowls a week, it would take me four hundred and thirty years to earn what Sadio nails down for kicking a ball around for seven days in Liverpool.

Like the song says, it's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world.

My pitch to Sadio will have nothing to do with washing up bowls filled with smashed up stone. Instead I will point out the alarming fact that most of the lads out here are wearing Arsenal shirts and something needs to be done to get more them of them wearing Liver Bird crested red. If he was sort out a year's worth of Always for a couple of schools, well who knows, in a year's time the streets out here will have more of an Anfield feel to them. Sure, it's a long shot but anyone involved in any kind of charity will tell you all about the 'if you don't ask, you don't get' thing.

A couple of days ago, new research revealed the wholy unsurprising fact that the richest 1% of humanity now owns more than the poorest 50% put together.

That is a set of figures on a piece of paper. When you drive past the ones who have 'gone to the stones', the numbers jump off the page and form into an unmerciless reality.

And our seven and a half million Ugandan Shillings? Fair enough, it is nothing more than a drop in the ocean but we couldn't be any happier about it.

3000 packets of Always Maxi Thick arrive at their destination.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

FINDING HEARTBREAK IN THE PRICE OF A BAG OF POSHO.


Life can certainly take you into some pretty unexpected situations. Those moments when you stop for a moment and think how on earth have I ended up here? Over the years I have often had this feeling in a variety of schools. In the months after I released my book 'The Drums of Anfield', I wound up talking about the story in a few high schools in the depths of Liverpool 8 where the classrooms had a distinctly Wild West feel. Then there have been any number of scowling Scottish S4 pupils looking like they would rather have their teeth pulled out with rusty pliers rather than be forced to listen to yet another drug awareness talk. That said, I have yet to find a Scottish classroom with quite the same Wild West feel as those classrooms in deepest, darkest Liverpool.


And there was me thinking being in front of these various audiences was in any way out of the ordinary. After yesterday, any further time I spend in front of a Scottish class will seem beyond mundane.


After fifty six years of life, yesterday brought me my greatest 'how on earth did I wind up standing here' moment yet. What started with listening to a BBC World Service podcast about the young people of Uganda a few short months ago had suddenly turned into Carol and I being invited to talk to 200 Ugandan schoolgirls about sanitary ware.


Yeah. Seriously!


Yesterday was a day when an aspiration became a reality. On paper, the fact that most Ugandan school girls have to miss up to 20% of their education due to a lack of sanitary ware seemed like a problem we might be able to do something about. Up until yesterday afternoon, it was very much a paper exercise. Making bookings and contacts and arrangements. Getting ducks in a row.


And finally it was time for the living breathing reality. A rendezvous with Ambrose outside the Stanbic Bank. A ride through the bouncing light and noise of downtown Kabale. 25 km of green hills and banana trees and roadside cows and bicycles carrying loads to beggar belief.


A precipitous dive off the tarmac and onto the dusty track to the place where the Kamuganguzi Janan Lewan Memorial (KJLM) Secondary School nestles under a clutch of steep green hills.


Ambrose signed us in with the gateboy whilst faces peered out from the open windows. Long low buildings with tin roofs. A crop of beans. Well worn mud pathways.


The Reverand Benon was waiting for us outside his office with a wide grin and a bone crunching hand shake at the ready.


We spent an hour with him in his office as a courier from Kampala brought in sealed O level papers for him to sign for. Outside the noise of lunch hour came and went as he introduced us to the almost overwhelming challenges the school is doing its best to deal with.


Primary education out here is free. Secondary school is to be paid for and it is had to imagine how tough it must be for parents to find the means to educate their kids. As a rural school far from the capital, fees at KJLM are low when compared to Kampala: £22 a term for day pupils and £44 a term for boarders. I know. Compare and contrast with the likes of Eton and Harow and weep. £22 a term. 50 pence per day or thereabouts. It doesn't sound so bad until you realise most of the families from the surrounding hills are looking to get by on a fiver a day at which point 50p takes on a whole new shape.
The Reverand told us about one female pupil who has neither parents nor home. She sleeps under what shelter she can find and works in one of the quarries for 50p a day. Three days work enables her to pay for 2 days of school.


The most pressing issue for the school at the moment is the sky rocketing price of 'Posho' – maize meal. Every pupil receives lunch as part of the fees their families pay and the school lunch is a vital part of their daily diet. The meal never varies – every day five hundred portions of Posho and beans are served up. The Maize meal is mixed with water, turned into a a porridge and then left to harden. Dried beans are mixed with water and served up as a thick porridge. The maize provides the carbs whilst the beans cover the protein.


A few months ago the school was paying £20 for a 100 kg sack of Posho. Not any more. Many parts of Uganda have been hit by drought and now famine is stalking the land. The price of food has gone through the roof and now a sack of Posho costs £43. The price of a sack of beans has also doubled. Before the drought, it cost the school about 8p per head, per day to feed the kids. Now it costs nearly 20p per head, per day. I don't have the first clue how they are managing to keep on doing what they do. Something tells me the teachers must have had to grit their teeth and take a pretty hefty pay cut.


A meeting in the Head's office in a Scottish high scholl might well come complete with a tray of tea and biscuits. We had the tea but instead of biscuits a freshly cut branch of bananas was plonked down on the desk.


Once lunch was over, the girls who were not sitting their 'O' Level exams were gathered in the hall to hear all about who the two strange visitors were and what we were hoping to do. The assembly hall was a long, low building with a tin roof and a clay floor. Desks were carried in whilst the sun poured through the open windows.


200 pristine uniforms. 200 rapt faces. And when the Reverand announced the news that we were going to provide enough sanitary ware for every girl in the school for a whole year the tin roof was in danger of being lifted clean off by the cheering. I don't think either Carol or I really knew where to put ourselves.


The expression on every face told a story. No more old rags. No more infections. No more getting behind with studies every month.


Not a paper excersise any more. A reality now. An utterly humbling reality.


Volunteers were sought. Would any of the girls be willing to come and talk to us in the Head's office? To tell us about what kind of difference having sanitary pads might make to their lives. When they came, we asked if it was OK to film them so we could use the films to try and raise more money to help more girls in more schools. Each and every one of them said "Yes, it is OK".
Serious faces and immaculate manners and backs as straight as fence posts. Quiet voices. Shy eyes. My parents are very poor.... I live with my grandmother and she has no money for pads.... yes, I have had infections.... yes, I miss school.... two days per month.... four days per month..... one week per month.


They have a word for how it is when their menstrual blood soaks through the rags. They call it 'mapping'. In soft voices they described the humiliation of 'mapping'. Trying to wrap a school jumper around their waists to hide the shame. And those with no school jumper would hide in the classroom until everyone else had left.


And when they promised never to miss a day of school in the future their eyes shone and their serious expressions evaporated into beaming smiles.


Carol found it hard. She found it hard to deal with their wonderful courage. She felt she was being intrusive. Interviewing them one by one. For the camera. For YouTube in the future. Because we live in a world where pictures are everything. A world where we give an average of 30 seconds of our attention to a YouTube offering. Will their soft voices and serious eyes be enough to win over hearts in 30 seconds of YouTube time? We'll see I guess. Christ I hope so.


After a few hours we rolled out through the gates and back onto the road to Kabale.


So much to try and absorb. So much to try and comprehend. Such overwhelming dignity in the face of such a sea of troubles.


Sadness and utter inspiration all rolled into one.


Like I said, life can take you to some pretty unexpected places.