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.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES................ WATCHING THE MIDTERMS COULD BE A LONG, LONG NIGHT.

The night we made our night drive to the worst place in the world, it was February cold. Ryan Air from Prestwick to Frankfurt Hahn. A fiver a head. And the airport was like being in a weird arthouse movie. Canned music and no people. An old Cold war US airbase made over German style for budget travellors. Like us.

We were the only punters at the line of car rental offices. And the sense of the surreal just kept rolling along. Wanna upgrade to a Jag for an extra ten Euros? Sure. Why not?

And then we were gliding east under a sky of glittering stars. The dashboard said it was minus 10 outside. Ever east in light traffic. An autobahn I had travelled in a another lifetime. In another world. Once upon a time I had driven the super smooth German tarmac all the way to the ark lights and razor fences of Eisenach. Smiling West German border guards. Unsmiling East German border guards. Through the Iron Curtain to a world of pot holes and chugging Trabants.

Now Eisenach was a gleaming service station and the smooth tarmac stretched all the way beyond Erfurt and Jena and Leipzig. And Gorlitz. And Chemnitz. Back in the day, Chemnitz had been Karl Marx Stadt. A crumbling, concrete manifestation of the slowly crumbling Bolshevik dream. Little did we know in a matter years Chemnitz would become the pin up town for a whole new generation of strutting Nazis. What goes around, comes around.

The autobahn went single carriageway for the last handful of miles to the Polish border. The road signs promised a hundred kilometres or so to Breslau. Which was a lie really. For there was no Breslau. Not any more. Not since 1945 when Hitler's last 'Fortress City' succumbed to the guns of the Red Army and mass rape. The Soviets were having none of Breslau. They renamed the place Wroclow and populated it with grey high rise blocks and Poles from the East.

The three in the morning border was kind enough for us. No fences or Alsation dogs. No watch towers or ark lights. And then a ten mile parked up queue of waiting wagons. Maybe it was sneak preview of what awaits us on 29 March 2019.

Potholes and no salt on the road. Odd cabin like bars gleaming puddles of light into the icy air. Glimpses of hard drinking HGV guys. Throat stripping vodka and trafficked girls from Moldova. Not a place to break down.

By four, my eyes didn't want to stay open any longer. A lay by and a couple of hours of sleep in the the Jaguar's cocoon of warmth. I opened my eyes onto a steel grey dawn and silver birches and a world of flat nothing.

An hour to the belching smoke stacks of Katowice. And then more surreal. A McDonalds gleamed in the wall to wall grey. And we were from Mars. A mixed race family in a Jag.

And suddenly were into the last few miles to the worst place in the world. There was no fanfare. No signs to speak of.

Just a small turn off. 'Osweicim'.

Auschwitz.

Light traffic in the grey early morning light. A pedestrian here and a pedestrian there. Crumbling apartment blocks and vast industrial estates and no clue as to the whereabouts of the worst place in the world. And it's not the kind of place you stop a well wrapped pedestrian to ask for directions. Not when you're in a Jag. Not when you own not a word of Polish.

A sign at last. Small. Unloved. 'Holocaust Museum'

Only a kilometre. Hidden away amidst all the factories.

We parked up and wrapped up and walked through the most famous gates in history.

'Arbeit Macht Frei'

We stood it for two hours. A gas chamber. A crematorium. Vast piles of suitcases and spectacles. The wall where 20,000 were executed. The railway siding in Birkenau where life and death was chosen for thousands a day.

Fences and watch towers and accommodation blocks and a bone chilling wind from the East. Well of course it was from the East. Where the hell else was it going to come from?

I have a memory of just standing there on the ground were so many had walked their last. I smoked and tried to absorb a brutal truth. We would have been on one of those trains. A mixed race family. An abhomination to the Nazi goons. An affront. I would have been guilty of committing a heinous crime against the purity of my race. And Carol would have been classified as a subhuman. And Dyonne and Courtney would have been deemed to be mongrels.

And for our sins we would have been stripped and gassed and incinerated. Four more souls in the midst of five million.

Four more statistics in the place where racism morphed into genocide. The place where Coon and Nigger and Wog and Spade and Darkie and Paki and Yid and Rag Head and Haji mutated into Zyclon B and carefully curated statistics of the day's kill: the day's industrial kill. Flesh to ash.

And in case you're wondering, no, the birds didn't sing. Not a note. Not a cheep.

The worst place in the world left me infected. Contaminated. A monster in the cupboard. A creak on the stair in the dead of night. A bottomless terror waiting around a distant corner.

Waiting. Always waiting. Never dead. Always patient and ready and waiting for the next moment. The next manifestation. The next infestation.

It is the lesson of the worst place in the world. Never say never. Not ever. We have found cures for TB and Yellow Fever and Cholera and Typhoid and Aids. And one day will no doubt crack Cancer. But Racism? The dark cloud in the soul of humanity?

No chance.

And for the fifteen years since we drove away from the worst place in the world, the lights have been going out one by one. In the Philippines. In India. In Brazil. In Sweden. In Denmark. In Italy. In Poland and Hungary and France and Spain. In Holland and Belgium and Russia and Greece and Ukraine.

And in America.

And right here.

So called strogmen popping out of the ground like poisonous weeds. Duterte and Mohdi and Erdovan and Putin and Urban and Bolsonaro and Farage and Tommy fucking Robinson. Hate for breakfast. Dog whistles and death squads. Lackeys for the 1%.

And of course the daddy of them all. Trump.

So laughable. So pathetic in all his preening stupidity. The butt of a million jokes a day. An orange monstrosity, but surely too much of a clown to do any real harm? Surely?

But the men who built the worst place in the world were once jokes themselves as they goose stepped and preened in their silly clothes.

Trump is their mutated spawn. The puffed up, pathetic strutting vanity of Mussolini. The venal, sweating, bottomless corruption of Goering. And Hitler's Satanic ability to turn pond life into a cult following. Whilst the world laughed, the 1% bankrolled these joke figures all the way to fifty million dead. Hilter had Krupps and BMW and Mercedes to sign the cheques. Trump has Lockheed and the Koch brothers. Hitler had his very own poisonous elf called Josef Goebbels. Trump has Bannon.

Everything has been road tested. When a handful of oligarchs are hell bent on stealing the wealth of the world, they need a useful idiot to distract the masses with a tsunami of hate. And if people can be induced to spend their every waking hour hating the Niggers and the Spades and the Coons and the Wogs and the Pakis and the Yids and the Rag Heads, they won't notice the fact that sixty people now own more than half of the world. Of course they wont't. They never do.

All of which brings me to tonight. Another agonising sit through the small hours before the dawn. The Midterms. Maybe the last chance to turn the tide. Maybe the last chance for enough people to remember the better angels of their nature. Maybe the last chance to stop a the poisonous tide which is rising all over the world.

And I'm dreading it. There have been far to many desperate nights over the last few years. IndyRef. Brexit. Trump. Triumphant, fist pumping racists wrapped in the wrong flags. And so called experts wondering how such a thing could have happened. And dawn breaking on a darker world. A world a few miles closer to the worst place in the world.

Will tomorrow bring yet another dark dawn? More memories of a smoked Camel on a railway siding where once some were allocated life and others allocated death?

Will my skin once again crawl with a gnawing feeling of coming doom? The feeling of being a mixed race family in the midst of a world turning to the dark side. A family deemed to be wrong and impure and sinful and abbhorant. A family to be blamed and hated and spat at. My two sons classified as mongrels. Sub humans. Responsible for every problem in the lives of millions.

And of course everyone will put on brave smiles and say of course it can't happen again. Of course they will. I wonder if they have ever smoked a Camel on the cracked stones of that Birkenau railway siding? I wonder if they have ever stared through the ice cold air to bare trees and mute birds?

Tonight could be the tipping point. It could be the moment when evil is stopped in it's tracks. Or it could be the night when the world slides quietly into a new dark age.

In the bleak grey of tomorrow's dawn, our small mixed race family might well be pinning our futures on a sanctuary called Scotland. The Switzerland for the twenty first century.

But right now the only voices in my head belong to the witches of Macbeth.

'By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.....'

Thursday, November 1, 2018

I KNOW YOU TESCO GUYS SAY 'EVERY LITTLE HELPS' BUT THIS BORDERS ON TAKING THE PISS!...

First Base have never followed the most common food bank model. Most of our fellow travellors do their thing something like this. They gather in all of their food donations from the public and then they divvy them up as best as they can. This tends to get done before the doors are opened. At the same time, a queue slowly forms at the door. If the doors are due to be opened up at ten o'clock, people might start arriving before nine.

First come, first served, right? And if you happen to be at the end of the queue, there is every chance you will go away empty handed. A cup of tea and genuine, heart felt apologies from a volunteer who wishes things were different.

Of course the media love this model. Why wouldn't they? It means they can dispatch a grave faced reporter to film a line of shivering human misery on a sub zero February morning.

Hushed, shocked voice.....

" ...... this is what Austerity really looks like....... I'm going to have a word with Gerry here..... Gerry, how do you feel about having to queue for two hours to get something to eat......."

Gerry tosses his roll up to the floor. Gerry rolls words around his brain. Gerry wonders how to say it without recourse to about five 'fuckings' per sentence. Gerry would love to use both barrels but knows he can't.

So Gerry just acts beaten

Like I said. What's not to like? Lines of cold looking people waiting on their tins of beans.

This isn't a model we have ever fancied signing up to. The idea of making our clients queue up on Buccleuch St is too rich for our blood. Never going to happen.

So we do things differently. We have a set list of items for each of the food parcels we issue. The items are designed to be enough for three meals a day for half a week. Fair enough, it's not gourmet. And fair enough, it would probably give an HNS nutritionist a duck fit. But we try to make sure there is enough. Our greatest goal is never turn anyone away. As in never. We have never turned anyone away in fifteen years and we don't plan to start anytime soon.

So how do we run our railroad? Well it is hardly complicated. As well as touting for food donations we also tout for cash donations. We fill in loads of application forms and we seek the support of the community. One way or another, we have always managed to come up with the cash we need to buy in the extra food we need.

This time last year we were spending £1000 a month on bought in food. This year it is £2000 a month. It stings a bit, but we're getting by. Back in the day, the process of buying in was something of a mission. It meant a trip to Lidl and the use of three trolleys. You can maybe imagine the comments we would get from the poor buggers behind us in the queue as we checked out north of 500 tins and packets. Oh yeah. Lots of dark muttering.

And then a whole new world emerged. Tesco deliveries. And what a brave new world it is. I can now log onto our account and order up 500 tins and packets in less than five minutes. The service is actually truly remarkable. We can set our clocks by the lads on the vans. They are never late and they always go the extra mile when it comes to giving a lift. It has to be said, Tesco's HR department are bloody brilliant at recruiting top lads to drive their vans.

We have a 'delivery saver' pass which means we pay about 50p per delivery which quite frankly is ridiculous. I guess their system never really considered a customer who would be ordering ten deliveries per month. Ah well. Such is life!

So all is rosy in the garden, right? If only!

When I run through the process of placing an online delivery, the half way point is the 'Substitutions' section. Here is what they say

SUSTITUTIONS

If an item is unavailable on the day of your delivery, our pickers can select a comparable alternative for you.

If you don't want to keep the item we have chosen, simply hand it back to the driver for a full refund.

NO EXTRA COST

Even if we offer a more expensive alternative, you will not pay more than the price of the original item.

Pretty good, right? Britain's biggest grocer is determined to see its customers right, even if it hits them in their rather large pockets. That's what you call proper service.

There is a key sentence which comes next. This one.

ALLOW SUBSTITUTES FOR UNAVAILABLE PRODUCTS ON THIS ORDER.

And then comes the dreaded box which needs to be ticked before a customer gets the chance to bask in the glow of Tesco generosity. If you don't tick the box, then tough. Read the small print sucker! This sentence isn't exactly written in big, bold letters. You need to be a small print savvy punter to notice the rather unimposing box which needs a tick. Am I being a little cynical here? Am I wrong in wondering if Tesco actually would rather its treasured customers glided along without noticing the all important 'substitutes' box? Maybe. Probably. I usually am.

Anyway there are no flies to be found on First Base. It didn't take us long to spot the small print and tick the box. We ticked every box we could find. Substitutions? Bring 'em on boys.

So. All's good, right? Well not quite. It seems Tesco feel no need to honour their promise of 'a more expensive alternative' in our case. In fact they never seem to want to offer any alternative at all. So if we place an order for 99 packets of instant mashed potato we count ourselves lucky if 30 packets actually turn up.

Have we questioned this? You bet we have. I've lost count of how many hours of my life have been spent being bounced around all corners of the Tesco empire. And everyone I talk to agrees we really should be receiving substitutions, regardless of cost. And everyone I talk to promises the issue will be looked into and investigated and examimed. And everyone I talk to promises they are genuinely sorry I'm less than happy with my customer experience. They are all very, very nice. And every time I put the phone down I am suckered into thinking maybe this time......

And nothing ever happens. Ever. Our deliveries just get lighter and lighter. We order £200 worth of stuff and less than £50 worth of stuff actually turns up. Oh it turns up on time. And the drivers are always emabarrassed about the thin pickings they are bringing.

And there are never any substitutions.

Well, yesteray the excelled themselves. Yesterday they added insult to injury.

This is the week when things have taken off for us. It happens every year. A cold snap arrives and the moment of truth arrives for people who have had their heating switched of since the arrival of spring. It is the moment they realise daily standing charges have put their gas meters into serious arrears. So when they stump up for a tenner's worth of gas, they only actually get 50p worth of heat on the meter.

Which means their tight budget is completely screwed. Which means it is time to ask themselves the dreaded 'heating or eating' quastion. And the weather man says it will be minus three over night.

Many people tick the 'heating' box and make their way to us for some food to tide them over until they can clear the arrears and set a new budget.

It means I have 100 food parcels to deliver today.

But First Base are old hands at this game. We watched the weather forecast and duly noted the promise of two nights when the temperature in Dumfries and Galloway was predicted to bottom out at minus three. We knew exactly what was coming next.

Showtime.

Time to do the Boy Scout thing and be prepared. Time to log on to Tesco.com and slap in a big, fat order. We maxed out on several items. 'Maxed out' means no more than 99 of any item.

One such item was 99 tins of 'value' spaghetti hoops at 21p per tin.

I paid up and cracked on. The order was for 11 am yesterday and the van turned up exactly on time. Just like always. Like I said, the service is second to none.

At 11.05 am I received a text from Iain. Could I head for Lidl and strip their shelves of tinned spaghetti. Tesco had fallen short. He needed a whole bunch of tins to make up the 100 parcels I will be delivering today.

So it was Lidl for me and a whole trolley of spaghetti hoops. Just like the old days.

When I arrived at First Base, Iain's face was wearing a made in Kilmarnock cynical grin as he handed me the Tesco invoice.

I duly read through looking for the cause of his expression.

It wasn't hard to find.

Value spaghetti hoops. Ordered – 99. Delivered – 0.

Substitutions..................

Holy bloody Christ!!! A substitution!!! After all the years. After all the phone calls. After all the minutes and hours of canned music and soothing, assuring voices.....

The day had finally come. The big moment. Our big moment. A breakthrough.

Finally......

Substitutions .......

One half can of Heinz spaghetti hoops.

99 cans ordered. One half can delivered.

One half can.

I know you Tesco guys say every little helps, but half a bloody can......

A couple of hours later I popped into the store to check out the spaghetti stocks on the shelves.

Let's just say there was no kind of shortage. Yeah. Let's just say that.

It rather seems we were on the wrong end of a token gesture.

Does every little actually help? When there are 100 food parcels to make up? Not really guys. I actually wonder what on earth went through the head of whoever made the call to send us half a can in lieu of an order for 99 cans.

I have tried to think it through from all angles and I still don't have any kind of a clue. Maybe it is simply and effort to stick to the very letter of the 'every little helps' mantra.

Maybe.

If you want to give First Base a helping hand in meeting the demands of the coming winter, you can find our JustGiving page by following the link below.


Saturday, October 20, 2018

THE WORLD SEEMS TO BE GETTING DARKER WITH EVERY PASSING DAY. SO HERE'S SOME LIGHT.



It's still pretty dark through the window. Dawn is arriving like a an old clanking, coal rain. Shades of lightening grey. Maybe it will turn into one of those Scottish autumn days when it never really gets light at all.

Maybe.

I have been knocking about on this planet for close on fifty eight years and I can't recall a time when things felt quite as dark as they do right now. At home, we are obsessed by Brexit and austerity and the historic ineptitude of the squabbling clowns in the so called 'Mother of all Parliaments'. I guess a Martian looking down on human mayhem Twenty First century style would barely notice our angst. Instead their focus would be the re-emergence of the so called 'Strong Men' after eighty years of us having evolved beyond choosing monsters to rule us. We seem to have entered a new era of puffed up idiotic tyrants and their inevitable death squads.

An era of radioactive poison and bone saws. Brazil, the fifth most populous country in the world, seems set to elect a certifiable fascist maniac by a landslide. Jair Bolsanoro is an amalgam. He has the jumped up preening vanity of Trump and Idi Amin mixed in the cold killer eyes of Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein. On the stump, he boasts of the part he played in the military junta which ruled Brazil via thousands of torture cells until 1985. He makes no excuses for the part he played in torturing tens of thousands of Brazilians. He has but one regret. He screams it from the podium. He regrets his Junta didn't go further. They should have done more than merely torture leftists and homosexuals and trade unionists. They should have killed a whole lot more. At least 30,000 more says Jair Bolsanoro.

And 61% of his recently polled people agree with him.

As the world warms up and the wild weather hits ever harder, most scientists agree on the importance of the vast forests of the Amazon Basin – our lungs. Our CO2 sponge. Bolsanaro has no time for such wishy, washy whining. He is campaigning to chop the Amzon forest to the ground. All of it Right down to the last tree. He wants millions and millions more cattle. He wants to make his country great by selling beef to Texans.

And 61% of Brazilians are carrying him shoulder high.

The ghost words which Sir Edward Grey spoke almost to himself in the late summer of 1914 come to mind.

"The lights are going out all over Europe."

Delete 'Europe.' Insert 'World'. And when the lights go out, it gets dark.

So. Enough. The window shows a lighter grey. It is time to deliver some light.

Regular readers might recall a blog I wrote a few weeks ago to launch a new charity I am involved in – the Kupata Project. You can find the blog here if you are so minded.


The goal of the Kupata Project is as simple as simple gets. We do our best to raise cash here in Scotland and we spend it on buying sanitary pads for schoolgirls in Uganda. Right now schoolgirls in Uganda miss up 25% of their time in school due to a lack of sanitary pads. 

On a visit to Kabale Province last Novemeber, Carol and I bought six months worth of pads for the 250 girls of the Kamuganguzi Janan Luwum Memorial School. We have a pretty good video which tells the story better than words. It's here. Check it out.



So what happened next? Lots of good stuff. Some light in the dark. As the news of free sanitary pads quietly spread through the green hills, eighty new girls joined the school. Absenteeism has fallen to almost nothing. Incidences of infections have fallen to almost nothing.

More time in school will inevitably meen better educational achievements. And when you mix better educational achievements into a vibrant young country of forty million where the average age is a mere sixteen, all kinds of good stuff happens. Only 10% of young Ugandans have a job which pays a salary at the end of the week. The vast majority are basically self employed. Every morning they wake up with empty pockets. To get by, they hustle. They innovate. They improvise. They plug in and out of flowering micro economies by making their mobile phones do things we can only dream of. They are amazing. Inspirational.

They are the future and every sanitary pad is an investment in the future. Not just their future. Ours too. Scotland will be independent soon. It is coming. And when we finally get the chance to lower the Union Flag from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, we will be needing all of the friends we can get. Of course we will look first to our twenty seven EU neighbours. But then we will look to the long list of countries which were once upon a time coloured pink on the maps of the nineteenth century. Fellow ex colonies. Fellow travellers.

Like Uganda.

Of course the Kupata Project isn't about to provide sanitary pads to every school girl in Uganda. Right now, we have the wherewithal to help out one school for one year. But small acorns, right? Our online fundraising page has so far raised a little over £4000. It's a start. Enough for a ray of light in the thickening darkness.

We make sure the girls know the pads come from the people of Scotland. Fellow travellers. And in time they will grow up and they will remember. And one day we Scots will at last feel grown up enough to cut the London apron strings and assume control of our own destiny. One day we will join Uganda and fifty other countries in the Ex-Colony club.

A shared language and a shared history. Young and old. The bridges we build today can be a big part of our future. If we get it right, we can become the lighthouse in the gathering storm. A beacon. A place where the new fascism is thrown out of court. A wishy, washy pipedream? Maybe. But let's not forget the Enlightenment. Scotland has some pretty impressive previous when it comes to providing light in a dark world. The clue is in the name, right?

Anyway.

They say pictures are worth thousands of words. I guess this isn't the kind of idea a writer of pulp fiction should really be peddling. Maybe. A few days ago our two volunteers in Kabale - Peace and Ambrose – oversaw the delivery of another 6 months worth of sanitary pads to the girls of the Kamuganguzi Janan Luwum Memorial school. Every pad was paid for out of the £4000 you guys gave to our fundraising page.

Peace and Ambrose took a bunch of photos which winged their way through cyber space from the heart of Africa to my phone here in Dumfries. From an ex colony to the last colony. From young to old. From there to here.

And you know what? It's a good look. It brightens up a grey October morning. It is some light

And you know what's coming next. Course you do. The dreaded link. It's right here. And I can give you the same promise as I gave you last time. Every last penny you might be willing to give us will be spent of more of the same.



More of this. More light. And right now we all need all the light we can get.









Thursday, October 18, 2018

KATRIONA AND MYRA - HOW THEY SAT OUT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE AND SUCCEEDED

For anyone involved in running one of Britain's thousands of food banks the the next few months are seriously daunting. This is a time of year when some kind of budget needs to be worked out. Most of the leaves are off the trees and the dark nights are closing in. The day when things start to get serious is not so very far away. This particular day generally lands in either October or November.

It is the day when winter arrives.

And all over Britain households who have had the gas knocked off for months switch on the heating only to find their meters in arrears. They have mistakenly believed that if all the heaters are left off there will be nothing going on the meter. Not so daft a thought really. What always gets missed is the dreaded daily charge which stealthily adds up through the warm days of summer as unnoticed as a gathering company of Viet Cong fighters.

It means a tenner on the meter only delivers a couple of quid's worth of heat. It means the budget is all blown up. The meter demands more money like a yelling toddler in the supermarket confectionary aisle. So the meter gets fed with the grocery money and all of a sudden the food bank is the only show in town.

It's the day when the reception area is full of people in coats. It's the day when the stacks of food in the basement don't look so impressive any more. It's the day when things change.

This coming winter is as threatening as any we have faced over our fifteen years in the emergency food game. Want a list? OK. I can do that. Try this lot on for size.

1. The price of most of the basic foods at the cheap end of the supermarket shelves is up north of 50%

2. Wages haven't gone up in ten years.

3. Benefits are frozen

4. Power charges are up 20%

5. A whole bunch of families are about to be handed down a £2000 a year pay cut care of Universal Credit.

The value of the pound is probably about to cave by another 10% as the MP's in Westminster scrap and bitch like rats in a sack. How much will this put on food prices? Another 5% probably.

There really is no need for a degree in economics to see where this is all going. A family who has been scratching by for the last few years is about to have to find another £20 a week for groceries, £20 for power whilst at the same time seeing their universal credit chopped by £40. All the credit cards are already maxed out and the bank of mum and dad has done a Lehmans. They've already had the foodbank conversation many times, but the sheer shame of it has kept them from our doors. But now? Will they be able to weather a £80 a week hit to already over stretched finances? I guess we're about to find out.

This is the point when anyone involved in running a Scottish foodbank in the autumn of 2018 is seriously tempted to reach for the nearest bottle. But that's never such a good idea, right?

Instead our only show in town is to look to the community and take every bit of help we can get. Which brings me to the point of this particular blog. Massive problems are seldom solved by massive solutions. Maybe one day some reclusive billionnaire will read one of these blogs and impulsively bung a million quid onto our JustGiving site. I guess it will be the same day Donald and Melania adopt a Mexican baby.

There isn't about to be any huge fix. Instead we will need a whole bunch of small fixes and with a following wind, there will be enough small fixes for us to make it through to next spring in one piece.

And it is amazing how much of a difference people can make when they make their minds up to get something done.

Which brings me to my two role models for this grey October day.

Myra and Katriona.

Myra and Katriona both set their stalls out to do something. And they have shown just what can be done.

Katriona first.

Katriona manages the local branch of Nationwide. A few months ago she talked to her team and they decided to do something to help the local food bank. As in us. They cracked on with some fund raising and then twisted the arms of their head office to top up the money they raised.

£2500. 250 hungry people who will get four days worth of emergency food over the coming months.

But it didn't stop there. When the voting event for who would get a share of the local anti-poverty money was held, they used their lunch hour to come along and vote for us. Did their votes get us over the line? Maybe. The voting was certainly pretty tight. Maybe their votes were the ones which nudged us into the top five and a cheque for £16,000. Maybe.

Then one day I got an e mail from Katriona flagging up a Nationwide funding opportunity. If we wanted to apply for cash for a particular project, then the local branch would back us all the way.

It has to be said our application was about as unglamourous as an application can get. I'll take you through it. Four days of food is actually quite a lot of food. It's pretty heavy. It requires not only a big bag, but also a strong bag. A few years ago we found a company online who provided the right kind of strong white bags for 10p each. And for a while things worked out OK. The bags easily held all the food and the handles were strong enough to bear the load.

Then the Brexit vote happened and the pound crashed by 15%. The bag company had a straight up and down decision to make. Should they put the price up by 15% or reduce the quality by 15% and keep the price the same? They chose option B and for the last couple of years the handles of our bags just keep on ripping. Which is a bloody nuisance.

Most of the people who come to us for emergency food cannot afford the bus. They walk. Sometimes they walk for miles. And walking for miles with a dodgy post-Brexit bag is a complete pain.

We have thought about this for ages. The perfect solution is obvious enough. Splash out 38p on sturdy 'bags for life; and try like mad to persuade clients to bring them back. It looks good on paper but in practice it means spending an extra 28p on thousands of bags per year. £1850. 185 emergency food parcels. Too much money when you're running on fresh air.

Katriona offered us a chance to sort this pesky issue out. We applied and she backed the application and £1850 duly landed in our account.

Which takes us to Myra.

Myra is the Community Champion at Morrisons and like Katriona, she's a complete star.

One of the biggest problems we have had to face over recent years is buying enough of the food we need. We order online and food arrives at the back door. We don't get any kind of discount. We are punters just like everyone else. It would be really nice if things worked like you would expect they would work. When I place an order, I might ask for 99 packs of savoury rice, 99 packs of cup soup and 99 boxes of Corn Flakes. I pay up the full price and wait for the delivery to arrive.

Prettys simple, right?

If only.

When the van pitches up, it will usually bring about 15% of what we have actually ordered. In theory any shortfall is supposed to be made up by equivalent products. Aye right. In theory. The day Tesco replace 85 packs of 25p Value Savoury Rice with 85 packs of 80p Batchelors Savoury Rice is the day Donald and Melania....... yeah? As in never.

Which is where Myra stepped up to the plate. Supermarkets don't like selling the value range. They hate it. And when a food bank tries to buy a van load of the value goods, they really, really hate it. And they do everything they can to avoid it. Myra had aleady been a huge help to us. The collection trolley in Morrisons generates £4000 of donations a year. She asked us if there was anything else she could help us with. And we highlighted the problems we were having buying in the food we needed. Could we maybe place big orders from Morrisons?

This isn't something they do. We had to cobble up a way for making it happen. We now go in and buy £1500 worth of gift vouchers and Myra orders in the food. I get the feeling she had to nag and nag to make it happen, but she got there in the end. I get the feeling she is having to go rather further than the extra mile to cajole head office into large quanties of the value range. But one way or another, the deliveries arrive and we are able to fill the van with all the stuff we have found almost impossible to get elsewhere. I guess I need to give Morrisons some credit and I will. But would Morrisons be helping us out without Myra? I doubt it.

Which brings me to the point where Katriona and Myra come together. Once we had the £1850 Nationwide money in the account, I asked Myra if she would try to twist a few arms to get us a discount on a bulk order of bags for life. It took her weeks of calls and emails but she got there in the end.

10% off. A price of 34p per bag. 5000 decent, sturdy bags with handles which are comfortable to hold and impossibe to break. All the difference in the world to someone who has a three mile walk home carrying four day's worth of emergency food.

Katriona and Myra set out to make a difference. And they have made a difference. It is the only way we will get through the next few months. There is no point in waiting for national governments to come riding to the rescue. Instead every answer will come from within the community. From the bottom up. From lots and lots of people like Katriona and Myra deciding to do something.

And doing it. 

If by any chance Katriona and Myra's efforts have inspired you to give us a small leg up, you can find our fundraising page by following the link below.

THE FIRST BASE FUNDRAISING PAGE


Saturday, October 13, 2018

ZACK'S STORY. HOW WE KICK A MAN WHEN HE'S DOWN... AND THEN KICK HIM AGAIN. AND AGAIN.

We need to talk about Zachariah. Oh, we really do. Not that he's called Zachariah of course. Who is? Not any more. The Zachariah's have long gone west along with the Mildreds and Getrudes and Ebenedezers. So, fine. He's not really Zachariah. Or Zack. His name has been changed at his own request. Which of course is fine by me.

There is something about his demeanour which prompted me to reach back into Dickensian times to choose a changed name. I can easily picture him as a trodden down clerk putting in fifteen hour shifts at a high desk: smart as paint in the same tweed suit he has worn every day, six days a week since getting the job at the age of fifteen. Thin as a rake. Diffident. Quiet spoken, every sentence speaking of a sharp as a tack brain. Instinctively polite.

In another life, he could have been a small town solicitor with an unimpeachable reputation for fairness. Right. Another life. I guess we'd all like one of those. But we don't get one. All we get are the cards we're dealt. Some of us play our hands for all they're worth. And others? Well, not so much so.

Zack called me up to see if there was anything we could do to help. I took in the basic facts and started to get angry. We meet lots of people who are getting screwed over. Not many who need a food parcel haven't been screwed over in one way or another. But sometimes the screwing over is so off the scale it demands particular attention.

Maybe it is best to kick off with the back story. The opening chapters in Zack's tale of woe. His journey all the way through from bad to worse. At 16, I can picture an impish character. Never in any particular bother, just mischief. Probably the class joker. Pretty good at maths without being deemed a swot. Sports? Not so much.

At sweet sixteen Zack discovered ecstasy. And his mates discovered ecstasy. Big weekends amidst the thumping, brain rattling base. Supplies were needed and Zack was the one with the brains to sort it. I didn't get the particular details, but over the years they have become sadly familiar. A hook up with a dealer from the wrong side of the tracks. Everyone chipping to the weekend kitty. A buy made on everyone's behalf. A narcotic version of getting a round in.

The Misuse of Drugs Act has never been big on the difference between hard core dealing and buying for mates. It all goes under the well worn banner of 'possession with intent to supply'. And so it was that Zack exchanged the banter of the classroom for the cancer seriousness of the Scottish Prison Service.

And then the sky fell in. A warder at the cell door. Come along with us lad. A chair in a soulless room. And news which uprooted him. Destroyed him. Sorry lad, bad news. Your mum has died.

Dazed. Broken. Inconsolable. His cell mate was a dealer from the wrong side of the tracks. Not a buying for mates sort of guy. A sell on the corner sort of guy. He'd just received a consignment and he could see Zack was hanging by the thread. So he did what he considered to be the decent thing. He tried to help. Here you go, mate. Try a bit of this. You'll feel better. You'll feel nothing. A one way ticket to the world of Pink Floyd's comfortable numbness.

And so it was Zack emerged blinking into the light a few months later with a fully fledged habit. After a few years of the usual dismal chaos, he saw the writing on the wall and read it carefully. He got himself onto Methadone. He weaned himself off the smack. He turned things around and left town for Glasgow. Pastures new. People new. A new kind of future.

And for a while things were good. He got himself a good degree and made himself employable. A circle of pals. A life different to small town Dumfries. A long term boyfriend and the heroin left far behind.

And then the sky fell in again. His partner fell ill. His partner died. And Zack was once again destroyed. Everyone was worried about him. All of a sudden the second city of the Empire seemed big and bad. He returned to Dumfries to be closer to his worried family.

A flat. A quieter life. A lonelier life. A life with loss and grief as a centre piece.

And the sky fell in again.

A long forgotten clot in his leg detached itself and headed for his heart. The clot morphed into septicemia and all of a sudden Zack slipped into a four day coma. His blood pressure plummeted and his family were summoned to his bedside and told to expect the worst. Fifty, fifty was probably over optimistic.

Zack beat the odds and re-emerged. After a few weeks in hospital, he was back in the world. His health was so bad the DWP actually deemed him to be ill enough to warrant sick pay. You usually need to be in a pine box for such a thing to happen.

And life went along. Universal credit. A flat in a place with older neighbours who he liked and who liked him. A one room sanctuary of sorts. Not much, but a handful of square feet to once again start out on the process of building a life.

And you've guessed it. Of course, you have. On a wet afternoon last week the sky went and fell in again. He reckons it must have been about noon. Maybe one o clock. He was on the High St. A slight figure with a slightly odd gait care of flat feet.

Two uniformed figures from nowhere. From the past. From a shop doorway. Bored. Counting down the minutes to the end of the shift.

"Excuse me, sir. You appear to be walking erratically. We are going to undertake a search under the Misuse of Drugs Act...."

"Do you have to do it on the High St with everyone watching? Could we go somewhere less public?"

Into an alley. A search which found nothing. His details taken and run through the system. Ah.... Oh dear.

"Are you aware you have an unpaid fine sir? From 2013? From Glasgow?..."

He was. He'd swept it under the carpet. An old problem for another day. And now here it was, snarling in his face like a rabid dog. Time for their hard choice. Pay up now or go to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect £200.

His monthly Universal Credit payment had landed in his account that very same morning. If he used the rent money, he could take Option 1. Pay the £500 and stay a free man.

He could face the idea of jail so he paid up and went straight to his landlord and promised to catch up the rent when his next Universal Credit payment arrived. Sometimes we are lucky enough to find a Good Samaritan when our lives arrive at a crisis point. But Zack had no such luck. The landlord chose to hit him with an eviction notice.

No more sanctuary. No more harbour in the storm. Instead, a date to haunt him. 31 December 2018. New Year's Eve. The last knockings of the year. And then? Then nothing.

And he was confused by it all. Surely being decent and polite should count for something? Well, shouldn't it?

Of course it should. But it doesn't. Not for the likes of Zack. Two bored cops on a slow, wet afternoon was all it took to tip his life back into darkness. And for what? I'm damned if I know. I have tried to get my head around this kind of bullshit for fifteen years and I've never gotten anywhere close.

It seems abject cruelty never goes out of fashion.

If you are minded to help First Base to carry on doing our best to support the likes of Zack, a couple of quid is always welcome. You can follow the link below to our online fundraising page.


Thursday, August 23, 2018

IT IS CRYSTAL CLEAR SCOTTISH PRISONS ARE A COUNTRY MILE BETTER THAN ENGLISH PRISONS. SO WHY ARE WE NOT SHOUTING THE NEWS FROM THE ROOFTOPS?



I make no claims to be any great expert on the prison system. That said, I reckon I know more than most. I have never been a prisoner myself. Thankfully. However, I have been a visitor to lots of Scottish jails over the years – Dumfries, Barlinnie, Addiewell, Polmont, Shotts. And yes, I never lose the very particular feeling which runs up and down my spine every time I make my way through the front door. And yes, I never lose the feeling of huge surging relief when I step back outside and light up to mix some craved nicotine in with a world's worth of free air. And every time I thank my lucky stars to be doing so.

Prisons aren't great places. Nor should they be. Yet I have never failed to be impressed by what I have found behind the razor wire. I firmly believe all institutions have their own particular feel. Their own mood. We do lots of work in schools and it is never hard to tell the badly run, failing school from the well managed, thriving school. Hospitals are the same. Offices are the same. You pretty well know it within five minutes of walking through the door.

You form an impression from body language. Expressions. A tone of voice. The way people interact with each other. The way they carry themselves. There is a very particular body language dance when it comes to oppressors and the oppressed. I saw it in on the streets of the old East Germany and the occupied territories of the West Bank. When one side holds all the weapons and all the power. When one side is willing and ready to impose its rules with a baton or a rifle butt. You can feel oppression in your bones. It seeps out of the bricks.

Never once have I had that feeling in a Scottish Prison. Not Polmont where the young dafties were once sent. Not in Shotts where the lifers count down the years.

A few years ago, I would often hear complaints from clients released from short term sentences for low level thieving. Three month sentences and six weeks served. Out before there had been any kind of rehabilitation programmes. And this always bugged me. The twenty year guys in Shotts were taking degrees and learning all manner of skills. The short term guys in Dumfries were barely processed before being sent back out onto the streets.

One client in particular would rant on about this. Andrew was a twenty first century version of the Artful Dodger. With a clear head, he was as good a thief as his Dickensian forerunner. With twenty or thirty blue valium hurtling round a deep-fried brain, he was the worst shoplifter in the world. He was always 100% convinced he was invisible. Oops. He wasn't. Three months. Four months. The cycle. The revolving door.

When they let him out, he would invest £10 of his liberation grant on a soothing tenner back of smack before heading our way to rage against the system. Every time they locked him up, he would put his name down for reading and writing classes. And every time he neared the top of the list, they would let him back out again. Andrew was one of the smartest lads I have ever met. In a parallel universe, he could have been a barrister, a City wide boy, more or less anything. He had been a bad boy from the age of eight and played far too much truant to ever stand a chance of learning to read and write properly. By the time he became a First Base regular, he regretted this and was determined to put it right. He saw jail time as his best chance of learning and he often wished he could be locked up for longer. 

Hell, I wished they could have locked him up for longer. A full year served would have been enough to clear his brain of valium and heroin. A full year served might have been enough for his huge IQ to be properly reflected by newly acquired reading and writing skills. A year served might have been enough to get him clear of his endlessly chaotic life.

Sadly he never served a full year and he died of an overdose before he made it to twenty five.

This doesn't happen any more. Thankfully the Edinburgh Government has chosen to completely ignore the 'lock em up and throw away the key brigade' of the Daily Mail. Now, nickel and dime offenses mean community service time which almost always leads to less re-offending. There is a new rule of thumb. If a sentence is going to mean less than a year served, Sheriffs are strongly urged to go down the community service route and avoid jail time.

This is good news on all kind of different levels. As a taxpayer, I am delighted my money is not being wasted. Every time we send the likes of Andrew off for a short sentence, it costs us £5000 a month. For what? It makes them much more likely to re-offend and ensures the jails are packed like sardine tins. Every bit of research tells us prison is the punishment most likely to breed serial offenders. Of course, the Mail and its grey-haired readers care nothing for research. Experts are so last year in Brexit Britain. They want people locked up regardless. The Westminster Government always doffs its cap to the Daily Mail. Thankfully, the Edinburgh Government tends to give them the finger. Three cheers to that.

Now jails are largely reserved for the more serious offenders. This means they are seldom overcrowded. This means there is less tension. The prison management gets the chance to undertake rehabilitation work rather than trying to keep a lid on the ever present likelihood of a riot.

This hasn't always been the case. Not remotely so. In pre-devolution times when Scottish jails were run from London, north of the border prisons were among the most notorious. The likes of Barlinnie and Peterhead outdid category 'A' Texan prisons when it came to wall to wall brutality. In 1935, twice as many inmates died in Peterhead than in Hitler's newly opened Dachau.

A few months ago, the Prison warders in England went out on strike. They reached an 'enough is enough' moment. Too much violence. Too many rats. Too little training. Too many drugs. Too much lockdown. Too little rehabilitation. Their workplace had become a living nightmare on the back of endless cuts.

They found themselves in the midst of a perfect storm. The Westminster Government slashed the prison budget by 40% whilst at the same time pandering to the demands of the tabloid press and locking up more and more convicts. As conditions descended into a pit of unmanageable violence, filth, and squalor, the warders could see the writing on the wall. They were working in places which were about to explode.

At that time I was in and out of the local jail seeing clients. I asked the warders if they were considering strike action themselves? No. Things are different up here. We don't have those problems up here.

And they were proved right. As the English prisons slid ever further into a fetid pit of violence, self-harm, and suicide our Scottish jails have retained a relative calm.

So are we spending a whole lot more money on our jails? No. So why is there such a chasm of difference? I guess the full answer to such a question is well above my pay grade. That said, a few things seem pretty bloody obvious.

We haven't traveled the dreaded privatisation road. We have only one privatised jail – Kilmarnock. And it is our worst nick by a mile. We have three clients who went into Kilmarnock having never touched a hard drug in their lives only to emerge a few months later as full blown heroin addicts.

Next up, our probation service is still a proper probation service, not a privatised mess. Our probation workers are experienced professionals who have the time and resources to do rehabilitation rather than box ticking.

Our system is based on a rather quaint idea. You find out what is working best and you do more of it. And you find out what isn't working well and you do less of it. One is tempted to say 'Duh!' It's obvious, right? Well, not to the London Government. Instead of deploying common sense, they choose instead to do what the screaming headlines of the Daily Mail demand of them.

And time and again they wheel out identikit ministers to extol the virtues of the private sector and they actually seem genuinely surprised when everything starts to go to hell in a handcart. It really is ridiculously simple when you give it a minute's thought. Any business looks to achieve maximum turnover and minimum costs. This means maximum profits, happy shareholders and eye-watering bonuses for the Board. When you transplant this mentality into the prison system, it soon becomes an accident waiting to happen. The business wants as many prisoners as possible to generate as much revenue as possible. They also want to spend as little as possible on keeping these prisoners. Worse food. More lockdown. Warders earning 60% of the salaries of their Public sector counterparts. 

In this world, prisoners soon become nothing more than units: units worth £60,000 a year. Nice money if you can get it, right? In America, they have a newly minted term for this. They call it the Prison Industrial Complex.

Is this why the tabloids are so keen to get four cons into every English cell? Where else can you make £240,000 a year's worth of gross profit out of a space of 10 foot by 6 foot? Not even Belgravia property gives that kind of return.

So here we are yet again. As the evening news is filled with horror stories about English jails, nobody is pointing out just how different things are north of the border. Just imagine if it was the other way round! Bloody hell. The BBC would be running ten-hour specials. Every night. Sophie Rowarth would be living out of tent pitched by the Barlinnie gates.

Why are we so bloody awful at shouting from the rooftops? At stating the obvious in such a way the obvious cannot be ignored? Why are our leaders so scared to point out just how much better our schools, hospitals, and prisons are when compared to those south of the border? When will we stop acting like a frightened colony and grow a pair?

So come on guys. It's time to grit your teeth and get out of the comfort zone. If we do things better than England, we need to say it: shout it. And stop the endless cap doffing and politeness.

Nobody ever got themselves free of London rule by making nice.