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.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

FOOD FOR JOE


When we get a referral to deliver a food parcel it tends to be a bare bones kind of affair. 

A name. An address. A phone number. How many people live in the house. Mouths to feed. Bellies to fill.

Sometimes there are a couple of sentences sketching out a back story. Tales of woe written in haste. Mere glimpses of some hard realities.

So I write out my lists and shuffle the names and addresses into a geographic order. As the crow flies, right?

Villages and towns. Sometimes the middle of Scottish nowhere. Schemes and leafy crescents. High rise and low rise. Ivy clad and pebble dash. Manicured and litter strewn. Cars in the driveways and old rotting sofas in the yard.

Google maps and not much by the way of traffic.

An it is amazing how many houses don't have numbers on the door.

Sometimes I find myself getting wound up and I have to give myself a wake up call. Grow up Frankland and count your lucky stars. An Amazon driver is expected to manage 10 deliveries an hour.

Which basically puts me squarely on easy street.

When I load up a hefty bag's worth of food for a family of six or seven or eight, I cross my fingers and hope to hell they're not up on the third floor.

But they usually are.

And nothing is designed to make a chain smoking sixty year old food bank guy feel old than a family of eight on the third floor.

So, anyway, I knock the door and sometimes it opens and sometimes it doesn't. When doors open, nine out of ten are in dressing gowns. More often than not they are wrapped up in a blanket or a duvet because when you can't afford to eat, you can't afford to heat either.

We exchange brief words.

They say thanks. I say say nae bother.

Next.

Other times the door is unanswered. So it's back to the van to make a call. But hardly anyone ever answers the phone to a stranger number. Not when they can't afford to buy food. Because stranger numbers mean people chasing cash. Let it ring out. Shove it under the carpet. Kick the can down the road.

So it is time to send a text.

Hi there. Mark from the food bank here. Your food parcel is at the front door.

And this time the reply is back in seconds.

Thanks.

And sometimes my number is discreetly saved for a coming rainy day. And a week or so later it reappears in my inbox. You brought me a food parcel last week. Is there any chance I could get another please? Because life is still hard to deal with. Because.

And one delivery is followed by another. A pandemic measured first in weeks and then months and now years.

So many pinched faces peering from half open doors.

First hundreds. Then thousands. Now tens of thousands.

And every now and then, one will stand out.

Like yesterday.

I'm going to call my man Joe because yesterday was very much Joe's day. As I drew up outside my Joe's block, another Joe on the other side of the Atlantic was being anointed as the most powerful man on the planet.

You'll have guessed my man isn't really called Joe. He is called something else.

A parcel for a single person.

I gained access to the block via the trade button. 

Like an Amazon guy. Like the white van man I very much am these days.

Result

Ground floor.

Knock, knock. Who's there?

Nobody.

Echoes in an empty flat. Fair enough.

Van. Phone. Ring.

And to my surprise my call is met by an actual voice on the other end of the line.

A little confused. A little flustered. A jumble of words which take me a while to unpick.

Joe had been worrying. The social had moved him you see. To another place. Another address. On the other side of town. And he knew there is a food parcel coming. But he didn't know what to do. He wanted to ring the social but he had no credit. And with no credit, he didn't know what to do. Which had been worrying him.

And there was plenty in the voice at the other end of the line to tell me he really HAD been worrying about it. Worrying more that he he really should have been worrying.

We get there in the end.

I tap in his new address and Google maps tells me it is 4 miles across town.

Nae bother.

A few minutes later I chap the door and Joe appears in seconds.

No dressing gown.

Jeans and a T shirt.

And nervous darting eyes. Look left, look right, look down.

More jumbled words jostle with each other. And again it takes a while but we get there in the end.

He has no money.

And he won't have any money for a while.

About another month in fact.

And what does he have to do to get another parcel? And another parcel after that. Enough to eat for a month until he gets some money.

Is it even possible? Is it actually allowed?

And inside every word I can hear the rising panic in his voice.

Look right, look left, look down.

Joe. It's fine. It's absolutely nae bother. I will bring you two parcels a week until you get your money.

I know where you are, right? I've got your number. We can do this because it's what we do. Seriously.

But can you do me one favour please, Joe?

Aye. Go on.

Can you text me to make sure I don't forget? Is that OK? Just to make sure.

And all of a sudden the panic in his eyes dials up to full volume.

Look right, look left, look down

Foot tapping now. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.

Fast. Urgent. Frantic.

And he's clutching for some words. The right words. The words he needs.

Look right, look left, look down.

Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.

And now the words are here. There right words. The words he's looking for.

"Can't. Can't read. Can't write. Can't text."

Done. Said. Out on the table.

Joe, it's fine. I'll use the calendar on my phone. An alarm, right? For Friday afternoon. My phone will keep me right. You don't need to worry about it, OK?

OK.

So Friday then?

Aye. Friday. Thank you. Because I have no money for a month.

I know Joe. And we've got your back, OK?

OK.

The door closes.

I get in my van and put Joe's details into my phone for Friday afternoon.

And I pick up my bit of paper and check out the next address.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

BRITAIN IN JANUARY 2021. A LAND OF PITILESS POVERTY. SNAPSHOTS FROM THE FIRST BASE FOOD BANK.

 


The mother of all Parliaments took time out to talk about poor people yesterday. To consider them. Debate them.

Except they didn't. Not really.

The Government of the day instructed its minions to abstain when it came to a vote. To hold their tongues and to toe the line. Basically they chose to keep their options open when it came to the big issue of the day, namely whether or not they should take away the extra £20 they had awarded the nation's poor to help them to get through the pandemic.

They certainly made their ingrained instincts clear enough. Of course they wanted to rip the extra £20 a week from the grasping hands of six million feckless scroungers.

Surprise, surprise. It has been that way for ten grinding years of cold, hard austerity.

But then again ...

What might the papers say? And what might the focus groups say? And what might all those untried and untested new northern MP's from the fallen 'Red Wall' say?

Oh my good lord, what might Marcus Rashford say?

So of course they chose the abstain and waffle option. Keep the powder dry. Kick the can down the road. And maybe another U Turn might be required......

Which is so incredibly stupid and pathetic. Because of course they will have to do another U turn. Yet another. But these guys have turned being weak and pathetic into the new normal when it comes to trying to run this Sceptered Isle of ours.

It seems the sainted Rishi Sunak is working on a cunning plan. Rishi's a numbers guy. Well, Duh! To rake it in in the world of merchant banking you need to know how to count, right? So here's the thing. If you continue to dole out an extra £20 a week to poor people, it costs £6 billion a year. Every year. And they get accustomed to all those treats and luxuries an extra twenty quid a week can buy.

So Rishi is looking to the left field. He is going old school. If all else fails, turn to bribery. Instead of sticking to the twenty quid a week Rishi is thinking about a one off cheque for £500.

Well that's going to work out well. A £500 windfall to people who have been eking out a hand to mouth existence for over a year. Obviously they will chose to treat themselves. New trainers for the kids. A film and bowling and Macdonalds. Rishi will dress it up as a gift of some rainy day money from a big hearted Government. And of course when he doles out the cash up here in Scotland, he will wrap it in a Union flag.

The good times will roll for a couple of weeks until the £500 payments become a faded memory. And then it will be back to trying to carve out a life on £70 a week.

Which is pretty much impossible as power and food costs keep on going up and up in our brave new post Brexit world.

I listened to a Department of Work and Pensions minister on the Westminster Hour Podcast yesterday. Bim Afolami. Now Bim is nobody's mug. He's one of the new breed of super smart young black Tory MPs who take to the media to bat for Boris. Public school. Oxford. Corporate law. Elected to Parliament at the tender age of 31. A through and through sharp cookie.

When asked about the prospect of the poor people of Britain having their extra £20 a week yanked away, Bim smoothly hit all his carefully prepared lines. It's all about work you see. The tax payer can only afford so much. Should we spend our money on keeping people in cosseted idleness or should we do the right thing and invest in getting them back into work?

Tough love, right Bim?

But then his smooth confidence suddenly received a severe jolt.

But Bim, surely you're aware that 40% of the people you want to relieve of £20 a week actually ARE working?

And surely Bim was indeed aware of this inconvenient truth. When all is said and done, he does actually work within the hallowed walls of the Department of Work and Pensions. He's one of the bosses there for goodness sake. He just hoped it wouldn't come up.

Public school, Oxford and Corporate Law don't prepare you for the realities of having twenty quid a week taken away to leave you with seventy. It's what they call a 20 percent pay cut, Bim. It's called ouch. It's called a complete kick in the teeth. It's called cold hard reality.

Now I make no claims to know what it's like to try to get by on £70 a week. I manage a foodbank and I get a salary. It is more than the minimum wage but a great deal less than the average wage. But it ain't £70 a week.

However I spend my days having socially distanced conversations with people who are paying the miserable price of being citizens at the sharp end of Broken Britain.

Here are three snap shots for you to check out, Bim. Not that you ever will, but what the hell.

As ever I am going to change the names. We have two men and one woman. So. How's about Boris, Rishi and Priti? Why not. My blog, my rules.

Boris got in touch a week before Christmas with all all too familiar story. The pandemic had cost him his job. A wife and four kids and a tsunami of bills. Could we help with food? Of course we could.

After I delivered his first parcel, Boris sent me this text.

'Hi Mark. Thank you for the food parcel. Would it be possible for us to get one every week? We've been hit with a benefit cap and we were only given £600 on the 21st December and we had to pay £387 for rent so whatever help you can give us I'd appreciate it.'

When I took the next parcel I asked about the £600. It seemed low, even for our our Government. His explanation was familiar. They had told hem there would be a delay before he received his first payment when he first signed on after losing his job. But hey Boris. It isn't a problem. We can give you an advance. Keep you going. Keep that head of yours above water.

Which was all fine and dandy until it became clear the advance would be deducted in the weeks and months to come.

Which in practice means some pretty tough maths for Boris.

£600 - £387 = £213 divided by 30 = £7 per day divided by 6 people in the household = £1.15 per person per day after paying the rent.

So I guess we'll be helping Robert out for a while yet.

Priti next. Priti sent me an email yesterday

'Hi Mark. Please could I apply for a food parcel. It’s for two adults and 5 children. My husband has recently lost his job. We don’t get our first payments until 21 February with Universal Credit.'

34 for days until a penny is granted. Bim would no doubt be more than happy to explain the theory behind this agonising wait. You see, Priti's husband will no doubt be due his last salary check. So the family needs to live of that until the Government steps up to the plate, right? We can't be too generous or we would be encouraging ideleess and fecklessness and that wouldn't do at all. Really Bim? Is it really a matter of national interest to be so completely cruel all the time? Maybe just for once you could take a different view. Check this out for a wild idea.

Priti's husband has just lost his job. We are in the midst of a pandemic. Unemployment is headed through the roof. Bearing all this in mind, we will start paying your Universal Credit straight away. Yup. As of right now. And when that final pay check comes in it will give you a little bit of a buffer. Not a huge buffer for what is to come. But something at least. Now wouldn't that be nice, Bim? They say it's nice to be nice, Bim. They really do.

OK. Rishi.

An email from January 2021. Britain in January 2021. Your Britain, Bim. A Britain far removed from public school and Oxford and corporate law and Parliament at the age of 31.

Hello.

This is an emergency as I am running out of food for my cat. We will need the food tomorrow. Can you help me with this query?

Thanks in advance.

Rishi

I replied to say of course we can bring some food for the cat, but what about you, Rishi? Surely you need some food for yourself?

He does.

So Rishi and his cat will get something to eat this afternoon. According to the weather forecast it is going to be raining. According to weather forecast it is going to be 5 degrees. According to the weather forecast it is going to be wall to wall grey.

And pitiless.

It is going to be Britain in January 2021. Your Britain, Bim.

It doesn't have to be this way.


Thursday, November 12, 2020

THE FOOD PARCEL RUN

 


A list of names and addresses.

And concrete from the 1970's.

Clues without back stories.

Leaving Care team.

Adult Social Care.

Care in the Community.

Addictions.

A list of the struggling. The broken.


Closes and Crescents and Avenues.

Nooks and crannies.

Cracked pavements and half hearted cats.

Dying weeds wrapping long dead sofas.

Where the winds of heroin once blew.

Where the concrete of the 1970's was once laid in hope.

As if.

But hindsight is a fine thing.


Some of the security doors work.

Most don't.

Beyond the pebble dash the stairwells crouch.

Bare and disinfected.

Stairs worn down by a million foot falls.

From Bay City Roller platforms

All the way to 50 Cent Nike.

Leaving the concrete of the 1970's

As eroded as the grey hills on the skyline.


Tired doors open up with a kind of fear.

Pallid faces.

Nightwear.

Lights off. Sometimes the view through the door

Offers a glimpse of a life in chaos.

Sometimes everything is obsessively clean.

And there is hardly ever any light.

Curtains drawn tight.

The endless flicker of a 24/7 TV.

Lives entombed by the concrete of the 1970's.


Clues found in the eyes.

Fear or aggression or drain out.

Sometimes the glaze of cheap drugs.

Sometimes the faint gleam of madness.

Sometimes absolutely nothing.

An emptiness.

A blandness.

Worn down and lifeless as the concrete of the 1970's.


Things change in an instant once I say who I am.

The First Base guy.

The Food Bank guy.

Expected.

Not an imminent threat.

Old normal, new normal, just normal.

A means to some kind of end.

A bringer of Pot Noodle.

Glimmers of smiles.

And sentences of thank you.

Before the tired doors click closed.

And I retrace my steps

Over the concrete of the 1970's.

Monday, November 2, 2020

MY THOUGHTS ON A WEEK WHICH MIGHT WELL CHANGE THE COURSE OF THE REST OF OUR LIVES

I am writing these words in the last knockings of a grey Sunday morning. It is 1 November 2020. It is 11.45. Outside the window, the weak sunshine of the early morning is long gone. The wind becoming a gale. The rain will soon be horizontal. There is barely a leaf to be seen on the swaying trees.

And tomorrow is Monday. The start of another week. A week where so many things could change for better or for worse. A week which will go a long way to shaping the course of the rest of my life. And the lives of my sons. And the lives of my yet unborn grandchildren.

Might the coming week be the most important in my near sixty years on the planet? Well. Almost certainly not.

I guess there were three weeks when my life could have been changed and changed utterly.

April 1989. 

Not the whole week. The weekend in the middle of an unusually sunny month. On the night of 14 April, Carol and I got togther and we have stayed together ever since. A true life changer. Then on the afternoon of 15 April, I skirted the gates of death by the skin of my teeth. In the cages of the Leppings Lane Terrace.

Hillsborough. Sheffield. South Yorkshire. And I made it. 96 of my fellow Reds didn't. It was the only time in my life when mass death stared me in the face.

So, yeah. April 1989. My life went on, but it was changed. Changed utterly.

The first huge week of my life is one I have no memory of whatsoever. October 1962. I was closing in on my second birthday when Kennedy and Kruschev brough the world to within a few minutes of mass death. And a one year old me would no doubt have been on the list of tens of millions to perish. Preston was high up on the Soviet nuclear hit list and our little family would have been transformed into ash within a nano second had the Americans and Soviets chosen to press their buttons.

The second of my life and death weeks also passed without me having a clue that anything had even happened. Me and millions of others. In fact, me and pretty much the whole world. We're talking September 1983. I was a couple of weeks into my last year at Cambridge. On September 26th, the threat screen at a Soviet early warning station lit up like Blackpool illuminations. The computer had sensed multiple American nukes headed for the Soviet Union and the doomsday clock was ticking down. The guy in charge was a Colonel called Stanislav Petrov. His training made what was to happen next crystal clear – pass the news down the line to the rocket guys and let Armageddon roll.

Stanislav chose not to buy what the computer was selling. Three times the klaxons howled and three times he ignored them whilst all his colleagues begged him to do otherwise. After a few minutes it became clear the computer had screwed up and everyone smoked strong Russian fags with shaking hands.

There were at least five U.S. Air Force bases within fifty miles of my college. Had Stanislav Petrov obeyed his standing orders, I would have been been gone without a trace. Of course I never knew any of this. None of us did. The story only leaked out decades later when the Bolshevik Empire crashed and burned.

The coming week is unlikely to carry the same imminant threat to my life and limb as those long lost weeks in 1962, 1983 and 1989. Its impact will take longer to play out. And yet the after effects of the next few days could determine the next half century. Maybe longer.

I'm not going to look at this globally. Instead I will be selfish and examine what might or might not come next through the eyes of me and mine.

First up is the big one. Tuesday night and the long early hours of Wednesday morning. The U.S. Election. What else? Has there ever been an election in the history of democracy which has held the attention of the whole world like this one has? No chance.

Of course anything which affects the way America is run has a pretty massive impact on the rest of us. For now at least, they are still the big dog. But the fate of Trump represents something much bigger. For the last five or so years, the world has been sliding into darkness much like it did in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Country after country has fallen into the hands of so called 'strong men; Russia and Brazil and the Philippenes and Hungary and Turkey and England.

And of course America.

Trump has made himself the pin up boy for an encroaching tide of Fascism. At times it feels like if you listen hard enough you can hear the sound of crashing jack boots drawing ever closer. And this is a sound guaranteed to scare the living daylights out of anyone who is a part of a mixed race family.

Right now the world has a horrible feel of Germany 1932. If the nightmare becomes reality on Tuesday night, the world will suddenly feel like Germany 1933. A die cast. A dark future locked in. The road to a new Dachau suddenly open for traffic.

But if he loses and loses big, then it will feel like the world has taken a step back from the brink. From the appalling. From the unthinkable. And maybe it can mean the start of something better.

The media seem to think our Lords and masters in Westminster are waiting on the result of the U.S. Election before making up their minds about a 'No Deal' Brexit on 31 December. This is a huge deal for my professional life as a food bank manager.

A no deal Brexit will probably mean thousands of trucks stuck on the wrong side of the English Channel. Supermarket shelves won't take long to empty out and the panic buying will make last March's run on toilet roll and pasta look like a minor inconvenience. Last March conclusively proved all the Brexiteer talk of the plucky 'Blitz Spirit' to be nothing more than yet another right wing fever dream. There will be no Blitz Spirit if the shelves are cleared. There will be mass panic and civil unrest. And probably not enough cops.

As a food bank, we are doing our best to put some kind of plan into place to do as much as we can in the event of this potential nightmare. Thanks to unbelievable support from some of our local food suppliers, we should be capable of providing enough for the most vulnerbale 4000 people in the area we cover for two weeks. The amounts of food needed to achieve this are eye watering. 10 tonnes of flour, 2 tonnes of pasta, 2 tonnes of mashed potato flakes.... Our thinking is probably somewhat optimistic. There seems no way the spineless occupant of 10 Downing Street will be able to withstand mass rioting for more than a few days. Hopefully after a week of so of this kind of mass mayhem, Johnson will high tail it to Brussels to get down on his knees and beg for a five year extension to the Transition Period which will hopefully allow for a return to some semblence of normal. It seems beyond crazy to have to be thinking this way, but we live in truly crazy times. Our threadbare plan reminds me of the old war plans from the height of the Cold War where the NATO forces were tasked to hang on by their finger nails for long enough for massive American forces to make it across the Atlantic to save the day.

OK. U.S. Election. Done. Prospect of a No Deal Brexit done. So all that leaves in my life changing week is the future of Scotland.

This one is a tad more subtle. Right from the get go of the Covid 19 pandemic, the Scottish Government opted for the tried and trusted option of using local health boards and Councils to run 'track, trace and isolate'. Johnson and Co chose to dish out £12 billion work of tax payer's money to their cronies in the corporate sector. The results have been pretty much conclusive. Our system, which has been tried and tested since the pandemic of 1918, has worked reasonably well: it seems we get a hold of 98% of those who test positive. The system down south barely reaches 60% on a good day.

This coupled with clear communication by a leader the people like and trust has meant Scotland has done a whole lot better than England. Every day at 1pm, I obsessively log on to the Scottish Government site to see how many cases we have had over the last 24 hours. Over the last week this figure has fallen every day. Not by much, but by a bit. 1400, 1300, 1250, 1150... On a pro rata basis, were we following the English curve these numbers would be at least double and rising.

Right now we seem to have falling numbers whilst still being able to keep schools, colleges and shops open everywhere and pubs and restaurants in over half of the country.

The next week is huge. If we are able to see a continued fall in cases whilst under a regional and partial lockdown at the same time as England sees an explosion of cases drive it into a full lockdown, then it could well be a true game changer.

Right now 'Yes' is sitting at 58% in the polls. If this coming week sees Scotland pull away from England as both countries battle the pandemic, then the lead could begin to stretch past 60% and well beyond. 

Far enough for the result of the coming referendum to be pretty much a done deal.

Which of course would mean I get the chance to live out my days as a New Scot in an independent country.

So if things go well this week, the future can start to look slightly brighter. The cancerous march of Fascism might be stopped in its tracks. The lunacy of a No Deal Brexit might be put back in its box.

And the dream of an Independent Scotland might just be a whole lot closer.

It's going to be quite a week.

Monday, October 19, 2020

THE LADIES OF KASESE HAVE SENT THANK YOU GIFTS TO ALL THE PEOPLE IN SCOTLAND WHO HELPED TO SAVE THEM FROM STARVING. IF YOU ARE ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE PLEASE GIVE THIS A READ.

 


Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the story of how the Kupata Project was able to play a part in helping over a thousand Ugandans to avoid starvation over the last six months. What might have happened without the generosity of the people of Scotland doesn't bear thinking about.

Sadly their situation is still difficult to say the least. Their old homes are still uninhabitable and their land is impossible to farm. We helped them through the worst, but their next months will be long and hard.

As they fight to find a new way to live their lives and to feed their children, it would only be natural for them to focus 100% on living through one day and then the next.

Astonishingly, they have given a priority to making sure they can find a way to thank all the people in far away Scotland who have helped them to survive. The women of the two refugee camps have tapped into the skills they learned as young girls.




They have made crafts – storage pots and bags. Our volunteers have collected the bags and pots and put some of them in the post.

The delivery has hardly been Amazon Prime! After what must have been something of a tortuous journey, their package managed to avoid the attentions of Somali pirates and to make a safe landing in Dumfries.

Here is what was in the box





So I duly logged onto our online fundraising site to collect up the email addresses of as many of our donors as possible......

Ahh.

Problem. Thanks to the annoying antics of many of the large charities who bother their donors like double glazing salesmen, unsurprisingly I discovered just about every one of the good folk who made a contribution had chosen the anonymous option.

Fair enough. I always do exactly the same myself. But it leaves me in a bit of a quandary. How do I do my bit to pass on the the thank you gifts from the ladies of Kasese when I have no clue who our donors are?

How indeed!

Well, this is the best I can come up with. If you are one of the donors and you are reading this and if you you would like to receive one of the thank you gifts, then please get in touch.

You can call or text me on 07770443483

Alternatively you can email me on markglenmill@aol.com

Please do. Once you get in touch and let me know your address, we will get your gift into the post. The final leg of journey should be pirate free, but in these wild times you never know...


We have set a deadline of 30 November for gifts to be claimed.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

THIS WEEK WE LOST JOHN. HE WAS ONE OF THE GOOD GUYS THIS WEEKS. ONE OF THE BEST.

 


















I was in an antique shop a couple of weeks ago. It wasn't the kind of place where they were selling stuff for thousands of pounds. Quite the opposite. It was a two and three quid type of joint. The displayed wares were essentially a couple of steps up from junk.

Interesting junk. Carefully chosen junk. You know the kind of stuff.

My eyes were drawn to a mug. It was oddly shaped and home to a sheen of long gathered dust. A date reached out a me. 1984.

The wild time. Not the the cold, vicious world of George Orwell. A much hotter time when Britain teetered on the edge of complete mayhem. I was a year out of college and living in damp terrace in the heart of Moss Side. The North felt like an armed camp as the Miner's Strike raged through the summer and into a dark, festering winter. Trying to get to Liverpool away matches meant endless games of cat and mouse to get round the road blocks. Any car with young guys in it was deemed to be evidence of the 'Enemy Within'. Trying to claim you were on the way to the match was futile. Hard faces on the other side of the car window saw you as one thing and thing only: flying pickets.

Fully paid up members of Arthur Scargill's army, hell bent on making it through the check points to scream and howl at the gates of a Nottinghamshire pit.

At the time, lots of voices said the great Miner's Strike was a turning point. The last chance to stop the advance of untrammeled capitalism. And most of the time these voices were mocked and derided and sneered at. Come on guys. Bit over the top, don't you think?

Except the voices were anything but over the top.

And with the defeat of the Miners in 1985 came the long and slow decline to where we find ourselves today.

The mug said 1984. Why? Because it was a commemorative mug. 1834 to 1984. The 150th anniversary of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Six farm labourers from Dorset who swore a secret oath to a trade union. An enraged British State threw the kitchen sink and sentenced them to penal transportation to Australia. How Maggie must have yearned to do the exact same kind of thing to Arthur Scargill and his merry men. Instead she had to make do with beating them to a bloody pulp on the sun drenched fields of Orgreave.

In 1984.

The mug made me smile. How much? £3. Like I said, it was a £3 kind of place. I shelled out knowing I had the perfect home for this particular relic.

John.

First Base's very own Union warhorse who had been fighting the good fight for forty years and more.

I got to know John ten years ago. Councillor Archie Dryburgh called me to say a Union mate of his had recently retired but still wanted to keep his hand in. He passed me John's details and we met up. It turned out John had represented the workers at Brown Brothers, a meat processing plant in Kelloholm. I asked if he knew the bosses. He did, but a rueful smile suggested the relationship had been less than cordial at times. So how would he fancy getting in touch and trying to persuade them to donate packets of sliced ham to the foodbank?

The very idea made him chuckle. Sure. Why not? What was the worst that could happen?

Two weeks later he called me with appointment. We duly rolled into the boardroom and I asked the directors if John had been a bit of a handful. Cue rueful grins and shaking heads. A bit of a handful? A bloody nightmare more like!

But they accepted he had been a completely fair and square bloody nightmare. He had their absolute respect even though he had often make their lives a misery. And of course they would be more than happy to provide packets of sliced ham to the foodbank.

Seventy packets a week. For ten years. 35,000 packets in all. Let's say £1.50 a packet. £52,000 in total. All because the directors of the company held the union warhorse in such high regard.

It was a glimpse of the world as it had once upon a time been. Before Orgreave. Before Thatcher.

Before 1984.

Over the next ten years John did various bits and bats to help us out, not least making the seventy mile round trip up and down the Nith Valley with our weekly donation of sliced ham.

I couldn't have been less surprised when my phone rang on day two of the lockdown. It was John. Of course it was John.

Stepping up just like he always stepped up. He told me he had already volunteered to help out at the hospital. Was there anything he could do for us?

There was. I asked if he would be happy to make deliveries of food parcels in and around his home village of Thornhill. Of course he could, except he went further. A country mile further. Within a few weeks he had set up a whole new foodbank complete with premises, volunteers and collection points. He mobilised the village via Facebook and the village bought in with donations of homemade jam and cakes and cash. To start with I delivered most of the food he needed to keep up with the growing number of deliveries. Border News did a piece on the new set up and the community upped its game to another level.

Soon my services were barely required. My weekly deliveries were soon little more than a few pies and packs of eggs. John shopped far and wide to get hold of the best bargains. He made the lives of the local supermarket managers a misery. He attracted a great team of volunteers. Absolutely everything was build from the bottom up and soon the Thornhill story was being talked about across the region.

Two weeks ago John was out and about on one of his shopping runs when he was hit by an immense wall of pain. Somehow he managed to drive himself to A&E, Lord alone knows how. Soon he was in an ambulance speeding north to hospital in Glasgow.

They operated and it didn't go well.

And we lost him in the early ours of Tuesday morning.

We lost one of the good guys. One of the really good guys. John was as old school as old school gets. He spent a whole life going out to bat for the little guy. Not with high sounding words and half baked Marxist drivvle. Instead he was forever practical. Hands on. Face to face. Ferocious when required. Nice as nine pence when it was a good tactic to be nice as nine pence. He got the job done. Saw things through.

He was living, breathing proof that Maggie's thugs didn't prevail under the burning summer sun of Orgreave.

And he leaves a hole. A very large hole. The volunteers who rallied to his cause are determined to make sure his last legacy lives on. As are all of us at First Base.

So farewell John. You fought the good fight right the way to the very end.

I only wish I had been able to give you the mug.

Here is the Border News piece.




Monday, September 14, 2020

I HAVE NOW BEEN A PART OF TWO FOOTBALL MASS DEATH EVENTS. 15 APRIL 1989 AND 11 MARCH 2020. THE FIRST PLAYED OUT IN FRONT OF MY EYES. THE SECOND WAS INVISIBLE.

 




Over the last few months I have been struggling with an inexplicable fatigue. Some days I hit 80%. Other days I barely make it up to 20%. These are the days where life is a serious grind. An hour feels like half a day. Everything seems like it it is twice as heavy as it actually is. My brain can feel like a bucket of treacle.


Why? No idea. Maybe my ageing grey matter is overloaded. Maybe. Maybe my long term insomnia is starting to catch up. Maybe all the miles on the clock are kicking in.


Stress? I guess the recent times have been somewhat trying. Battling to come up with the wherewithal to feed 2500 people a month here in Scotland and a thousand people down in Uganda hasn't been much of a picnic. But has it seriously stressed me out? I don't think so. I have known much worse stress over the years and never felt so completely washed out.


Maybe it is just the unrelenting gloom of the times. The gnawing sense of something terrible waiting in the winter wings. Images of a post hard Brexit of empty shelves and riot police manning the doors of Tesco. Pitching up at the foodbank to find a Texas style mile long queue of the newly desperate. Two days worth of hungry with crying kids waiting back in unheated homes. Assuming a food bank can come up with a bread and fishes on the banks of the Sea of Gallilee class of miracle. Not ready to accept the reality of an empty basement and a bad news sign on the door.


Maybe.


We live in the days of Covid. Mainstream news and online news and rumour and hearsay. A world where the wild world of Facebook elbows its way into what was once the normal world.


The world of half whispered testimonies to a thing which is as often as not called Long Covid. A world of chronic and endless headaches. Depression as deep as the Pacific Ocean. Nausea and a complete loss of appetite.


And fatigue.


Chronic, endless fatigue. Marathon runners who can no longer manage to jog half a mile. Writers who can barely complete a sentence. An all encompassing, bottomless tiredness which goes on for weeks and then months and maybe forever.


Well. My fatigue isn't that fatigue. Not even close. So surely a brush with Covid isn't a place where an answer might be found.


But then there is the 'glancing blow' theory. Have you come across it? It seems to go something like this. Basically the harshness of the Covid dose you receive all depends on how much of a viral load you get hit with. If you spend a prolonged amount of close up time with someone who is breathing virus in your face, then you get the full dose experience. Days of being sick and thinking you're on the way out. And then maybe you actually make your way out. Or maybe you get through the worst only to be besieged with the full on nightmare of 'Long Covid'.


Alternatively, you might get hit with a glancing blow. A brief encounter with a carrier. A couple of breaths. Enough for a mere viral toe hold. You feel a bit rough and then you are fine. Well. More or less. The Long Covid isn't in your face. Instead it is somewhere in the background. Making life that little bit harder. But not unmanageable.


Could it be?


Maybe. But to catch a glancing blow of Covid, you need to be in the wrong place at the the wrong time. I have been here in Dumfries and Galloway where at the time of writing we have barely had 300 cases since lockdown. And all through the pandemic I have adopted the two metre radar. Could I have received a glancing blow? The odds against are off the scale.


Which basically takes me back to the evening of March 11. A few days away from the last gasp of the old normal. The evening news was filled with images of the nightmare that was Lombardy. Were we next? And what should we do to avoid becoming the next Bergamo?


On the night of March 11, I drove 170 miles south. To Liverpool. To Anfield. To Liverpool v Athletico Madrid. One nil down from the first leg. One of those legendary Anfield nights was all ready to be unleashed.


It was cold, but not freezing. A slight mist dropped visibility down. The expected roaring atmosphere wasn't quite there. Nearly. But not quite. Maybe there was a thing in the back of our minds. A troubling fact. You see, every other match being played across Europe that night was being played behind closed doors.


But not our match. Our match had received the green light. Did it cross my mind not to go? Be serious. A Champions League quarter final isn't a thing you don't go to. There wasn't a single empty seat. Not a one. Does that make us all stupid people who deserved all we got? Maybe it does. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.


A week later saw the end of the old normal as the lockdown was snapped into place. And soon the nightly news carried graphic images of the growing nightmare of Spain.


Of Madrid.


Of the home city of the 3000 Athletico fans who had bayed out their joy on that cold misty, Anfield night as their team ripped the European Cup from our grasp.


They had been singing in the street. Beaming. Close to dancing.


The dreaded guidance said ten days was how long it took for Covid to raise its ugly head. So I counted down the days and maybe I felt a bit under the weather, but it I was pretty sure it was just a cold.


And then it was all about the new normal and shipping out enough food to feed 2500 people a month in Scotland and 1000 people in Uganda.


By May, questions were starting to be asked. Had the Anfield game been a 'super spreader' event? People did their best to dig up the truth, but it was anything but easy. The University in Liverpool was tentatively sure over seventy of the city's Covid deaths could be tied to the game. But what about deaths in Madrid? And what about deaths everywhere else?


Impossible to say. If there were 70 deaths in the city, there would almost certainly have been the same again elsewhere. So was it 140? Or 280? We will never know.


What seems pretty certain is that the number of people killed by going to Anfield on that misty night in March was more than 96.


Oh yes. More than 96.


More than the number of people who died on a sunny April afternoon way back in 1989.


In South Yorkshire. In Sheffield. In a football stadium called Hillsborough.


At an FA Cup semi final.


At my very first football mass death event.


I guess some compare and contrast is in order.


Similarities? There are one or two I suppose. 

Neither game should have happened. The stadium at Hillsborough had not been granted a safety certificate because the whole crumbling shed was patently unsafe. The rules were clear enough. The FA was not allowed to stage an FA Cup Semi Final in a stadium which lacked a safety certificate. Not exactly rocket science. But things didn't turn out that way.


The Chairman of Sheffield Wednesday was also on the FA committee tasked with allocating the Semi Final. Sheffield Wednesday were pretty much flat broke so the Chairman pulled a string or two and blind eyes were duly turned.


By 11 March 2020, it was already clear stuffing tens of thousands of people into a football stadium was a pretty dodgy thing to do as the Covid virus was starting to march across Europe. Every other government recognised this and ordered games to be played out behind closed doors.


Our government took a different view. They were still very much 'herd immunity' curious. So they gave the game the nod. And once again a bunch of people paid with their lives.


Any other similarities? I guess there is one. Before the disaster of 1989, I had attended two previous FA Cup Semi Finals at Hillsborough. One against Arsenal in 1980 and one against Nottingham Forest a year earlier in 1988. On both occasions my ticket put me in the Lepping Lane cages. On both occasions it was an utter nightmare. On both occasions something very, very bad could easily have happened. These two previous experiences saved my life on 15 April 1989. Course knowledge prompted me to take a step back at the moment thousands of my fellow fans poured into what was to become a tunnel of death.


But there is another point I really should admit to. I knew the Leppings Lane End was potentially lethal. I knew it was a catastrophe waiting to happen. And yet I went anyway. For the third time. And it wasn't like I was some naive kid. I was twenty nine years old and I went anyway. Just like 50,000 others. Just like the 96 who never made it home.


In March this year I was well enough aware of what was going down in Lombardy. The nightmare of Bergamo was front and centre in the news. And I was fully aware of the fact that our game was the only game in Europe which was to be played in a packed stadium.


I went anyway. 53,000 of us went anyway. 3000 flew in from Madrid and went anyway.


Contrasts? Visibility is everything. In 1989 I stood and watched 96 corpses yanked clear of the death cages. The nightmare played out right in front of my eyes. And straight away the reason for the catastrophe was clear to every one of us who was there. An appalling, over aggressive police force. Cages which became death traps in the blink of an eye. Human beings being treated worse than cattle because football fans were deemed to be the scum of the earth. Enemies within.


The Government of the day created the preconditions which cost those 96 lives. During the Miners Strike, the South Yorkshire police wer encouraged to morph themselves into a quasi para military force who believed they were well and truly above the law. Throughout the 80's, the Thatcher regime saw Liverpudlians as dangerous subversives who should at all times be dealt with harshly. And most crucially, the Thatcher regime had dehumanised football fans to such an extent it was deemed OK for us to be crammed into death trap cages.


On March 11, I didn't see anyone die. The stadium was its usual magnificent self. The police were efficient and low key. There were no preconditions to hundreds of people losing their lives as a consequence of attending a football match.


The deaths were down to a single wrong decision. A miscalculation. A mistake, but it seems to have been an honest mistake. And of course hindsight is a wonderful thing.


After 15 April 1989, I was proud to play a small part in our 30 year fight for eventual justice. Will I be doing the same in the wake of 11 March 2020? No. We all make mistakes. I drove down to Liverpool with my eyes wide open. I don't think I considered missing the match for a single second. In many ways, we football fans are a bit like lemmings. There were ten year's worth of warnings in the run up to the Hillsborough disaster and the Thatcher regime chose to ignore each and every one of them. This time there were barely any warnings. Covid was a 'Johnny come lately' threat and it took all of us a while to get our heads round how we should avoid it.


So I won't be kicking off this time. Instead I will have to accept the consequence of being a football lemming. Hillsborough left me with thirty years worth of a very mild PTSD. It also irrevocably broke any last modicum of faith I had in the British State. Six years after staring down at the corpses laid out on the green grass, I emigrated and signed on the dotted line to become a New Scot.


I guess these strange bouts of chronic fatigue will be my legacy of 11 March 2020.


So be it. When all is said and done, I am still living and breathing.


Hundreds of of my fellow fans are not.