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, March 21, 2013


War terminology seems to be getting more and more popular as the recession stretches and deepens. Every time a set of dire statistics are wheeled out to show just how deep in it we all are, grave faced politicians remind us of those dim and distant days when we stuck together and saw off Hitler. Whichever way you look at it, this really is a bit of a stretch. Back then we were being bombed every night by fleets of Heinkel 111’s. The bombers were ordered into the skies by a raging psychopath in Berlin with five million soldiers of the Wehrmacht at his beck and call. Our problems today are a million miles from that. Back then, we had an easily identifiable enemy to focus on. Hitler made no bones about what he had in mind if he ever found a way to get by the Royal Navy and set his Panzers loose in Kent. Invade and enslave.

Right now there are no incendiary bombs from the factories of the Ruhr setting our cities ablaze. Instead we see the world we have become accustomed to slowly falling apart. Nobody wants to buy our stuff any more. Hell, we don’t even buy our own stuff any more. Every night we hear on the news that it is getting worse and it is more than clear than nobody really has the faintest clue how to turn things around.

Part of the wartime vocabulary is the whole idea of the Frontline Charity. Newsreaders evoke images of embattled organisations heroically trying to deal with a tide of ever desperate humanity. Like most things in life, the reality is rather different from the jazzed up version of things we see on the tele. First Base is very much a frontline charity and on a fairly regular basis we get called up by the media as they look for street level views of the crisis. The young journalists seem to expect cracking photo opportunities of haggard and hungry people queued around the block for emergency food.

Of course the reality is rather different. The reality of the so called Front Line is one of quiet desperation, to borrow the title of one of my recent books which I borrowed from Pink Floyd who borrowed it from a quote from years and years ago.

Yesterday morning I pitched up at First Base to get some stuff together before heading off to talk to a bunch of school kids about how binge drinking and taking drugs isn’t the smartest play right now. A mean, cutting wind straight from Vladivostok was lancing down Buccleuch St and nothing much seemed to be moving. In theory it should have been rush hour, but Dumfries doesn’t do rush hour any more. There are no longer enough people at work in the town centre for there to be much of an incentive to rush. Parking is seldom a problem. Half the shops are boarded up. When we opened up ten years ago every building on the street was open for business. We were the exception to the rule and quite a few of our neighbours were less than happy to have a drug agency in their midst. Buccleuch St was home to solicitors and accountants and financial advisors as well as the Sheriff Court and the Municipal Chambers. Now half the street is up for sale and nobody seems to be showing much inclination to buy anything. The court is still doing decent business and the pharmacy still fulfils prescriptions.

A few weeks ago I was getting some stuff from the place we get our stationary. The owner told me how solicitors who had only a year or two ago ordered five reams of paper every month now only ordered up one ream. When you consider what solicitors charge for a piece of paper, this shows the extent to which commercial activity is grinding to a halt. No wonder so many buildings are now empty and suddenly pointless. These are office buildings and no good for converting into betting shops or pound shops or pawnshops. Or charity shops. Very quietly they have become yesterday’s news.

On to a local high school. It was built in the Seventies and carries a crumbling, peeling memory of that uniquely tacky decade. Lord alone knows how it managed to stay standing through 13 years of New Labour when such buildings were bulldozed and rebuilt thanks to thirty year Wonga style PFI loans. The colour scheme of the dark corridors paid homage to the all but forgotten look of East Germany during the heyday of the Iron Curtain. We had been warned that this particular fourth year class might be a bit of a handful. But they weren’t. Not remotely. They were as good as gold and after half an hour or so I kind of wished they would kick off and start chucking stuff around the room. Instead they wore expressions of vague fear. And why wouldn’t they? Kids aren’t stupid. They can see the writing on the wall. They instinctively get the fact that they have drawn a short straw in terms of their date of birth. Memories of those Saturday night Westerns of my childhood. ‘How’s it look Chuck? ....It’s quiet…… Too quiet…”

Two schools later and we opened up the door to the wet pavement. The Frontline was open for business. Was there a tide of desperate, tearful humanity? Nope. Just a steady trickle. Benefits screwed up. Benefits suspended. Disability pay chopped. Electric bill an unmanageable nightmare. The bell on the door announced people coming in and going out. Paperwork completed and food handed over the counter. Stories told and taken on board. Two guys up from lost jobs in Dover. They were in their early fifties and in no hurry to step away from the wall heater. Two nights kipping down by the river had taken a toll and all the homeless hostels were full up. And yeah, life’s a bitch. Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way. Except this was Scotland. But we’re all British. And we’re all in it together.

Later on I drove up to Lockerbie to give a talk to the Presbytery of the Church of Scotland for Annandale and Eskdale. I hadn’t much of a clue what to expect. It was a kind of an AGM and the agenda looked pretty daunting. Prayers and a hymn kicked things off and yet again it all felt quiet somehow. I have to say I always feel a little off key when sitting in the midst of a bunch of people who are praying. Religion isn’t my bag and what to do with your head is one of those tricky issues. Do you bow your head out of basic manners and therefore feel like a hypocritical git? Or do you just keep the chin up and stare ahead and wait for the thing to run its course? I never much like feeling like a hypocritical git, so I stared ahead and felt like a bit of a fraud. The guy who had asked me along had explained that there would be some business to get through before it was time for me to speak. Was there ever! The minutes from the last meeting of the Presbytery ran to twenty something pages and agreeing them as a thing to behold. The clerk announced each page. ‘Are there any corrections for page one of the minutes?’ A careful pause. ‘Page one is one is adopted….’ ‘Are there any corrections for page two of the minutes?’……It took a while.

Convenors and Elders and sub groups were nominated and confirmed until it was time for me to get to my feet to spend fifteen minutes going over how many people lack the means to feed themselves on any given day in Dumfries and Galloway. And it hit me that there was the same quietness in the room as there had been in the classroom earlier in the day. The same quietness that was wrapped around the empty office buildings of Buccleuch St. Because hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way….

I trotted out the First Base view of the world as seen from our front line post. The time of Government sorting everything out is drawing to a close. Echoes of TS Eliot and English Lit O Level. The Waste Land. ‘This is how the world will end, not with a bang but a whimper…’

The safety net dream time of 1945 is drawing to a close. The lights are winking out one by one on the time when all can be fed and housed and made well again by a benevolent Nanny State. Instead we are entering a time when we are all going to have to relearn the art of looking out for each other. And this all meant that this group of quietly praying people in a quiet church hall were very much manning the frontline. In the coming months and years, churches will have to get back to being what they once were. They have the space and the kitchens and the volunteers. They will need to resume their place as a focal point of the community where those who still have do what they can to help out those who have not.

I guess they would have liked to hear something more upbeat. Just like the fourth year kids would have liked a more positive outlook. But the front line isn’t a particularly upbeat place to be right now. The guns remain silent and the armies are huddled against the cold whilst a mean east wind leaks through the rusty barbed wire.

And hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way….             

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