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.

Monday, March 31, 2014


Our volunteer who does the Monday morning food run up the Nith valley is away in Asia and Australia for a month, so my week now starts with a ride up the A76. The countryside is drop dead gorgeous, particularly in the early morning when the newly risen sun paints the peaks of the hills all kind of glowing colours. But the beaten up towns of the valley are like refugees. Only a few decades ago towns like Sanquhar and Kirkconnel had a genuine reason to exist. They mined coal. They helped keep everyone’s lights on. They had war memorials which gave written proof that they had offered up more young men than most to the meat grinders Britain's World Wars.

Then of course everything changed as Maggie Thatcher and Arthur Scargill played out their poker game which eventually consigned places like Sanquhar and Kirconnel to the scrap heap of history.

A few months ago my blog describing the dismal plight of those who have been left behind in these ‘post industrial’ places received many, many more hits than I would  ever have thought. Which was pleasing I suppose. That was back in the autumn when we had just established a new food parcel collection point at Action for Children. Ever since John has taken 15 food parcels up the A76 every week: come wind, rain or shine.

Some basic, permafrost cold statistics? Why not

Number of emergency food parcels per year. 52 x 15 = 780

Population of the village – 2074

Enough said I guess. If we gave out the same proportion of food parcels across the whole of Dumfries and Galloway we would be on target to dish out 56,000 parcels in the next 12 months. In fact the figure will be about 7000.

So we are left with a conclusion which isn’t exactly hard to come to: Kirkconnel is a poverty hotspot. There are two over-riding reasons for this. Number one, the Government once upon a time shut the coal mine. Number two, the Government is now in the process of shutting down the benefit system.

Fair enough. But there is more to the story here. Let’s assume that you live and breathe in Kirconnel and right now you lack gainful employment. You are in fact on the dole or the ‘Brew’ as it tends to be called in these parts. This means that you are given £60 a week to live on thanks to a caring state. So long as you head down the A76 to Dumfries twice a month to sign on the dotted line and you make sure you don't arrive more than a second late for your appointment, then you can look to receiving your ‘Brew’ money for the foreseeable future.

Housing is no great problem. There are plenty of empty houses in Kirkconnel. However they are not like all of those empty houses in Kensington. The houses of Kirkconnel tend not to sit in the investment portfolios of Russian gangsters. They are empty because nobody wants to live in them.

Heating and lighting your house is a problem. The wind lances through the valley in the cold months of the long Scottish winter. The surrounding countryside would be ideal for filming a movie of Macbeth.

‘Light thickens and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood.’

Oh yeah. The hard ridged moors that stare down on the village are pretty ideal from planning dark deeds.

But I digress. It’s a cold place. It will take half of your Brew money to keep your house anything approaching warm, especially if you have reached an age where the doctor tells you to swallow an aspirin every morning to avoid taking a coronary.

So you’re left will £30 a week to clothe and feed yourself.

As in not a lot, though it always seems that politicians are more than confident that they would be absolutely fine and dandy if they were ever required to get by on such a sum.

This is where life gets particularly hard for anyone unlucky enough to find themselves stranded in a post industrial place which has become out of sight and out of mind. This is where we can see Capitalism at it most savage. When I say or write such a sentence, people immediately call me a Marxist. Don’t get me wrong, I can see why. The fact is that I have never read so much as a page of 'Das Kapital' and I have no political affiliations whatsoever. As far as I am concerned such a sentence represents no more than a cold, hard fact.

Look at it this way.

Where on planet earth is the urban area where people are most desperate for food? I expect it will be those besieged suburbs of Damascus where the Syrian Army seems hell bent of starving to death people who don’t much like the Assad family.     

Where on planet earth is the place where you pay the highest price for a pound of rice? I expect it will be those very same besieged suburbs of Damascus where the Syrian Army seems hell bent of starving to death people who don’t much like the Assad family.    

These two facts are forever locked together. The more desperate people are for a particular product, the more that particular product will cost. It is the religion of the market. Supply and demand. And there is nothing that Capitalism loves more than a controlled market. A monopoly. Because of course if there is only one supplier, and people absolutely need what he is selling, then he can more or less charge what he likes.

If there is more than one supplier, things are somewhat different. These suppliers have to complete with each other and they will strive to be able to sell their goods and services at the cheapest price whilst still turning a profit.

So if you live in a place where there are lots of suppliers fighting each other tooth and nail, then you are a lucky punter.

But if you live in the place where there is only one seller, then you are going to get well and truly ripped off.

This of course is why drug dealers are so fond of shooting each other. Those boys just love a nice monopoly.

Way back in 1844 this particular iron clad rule of capitalism got a bunch of people very wound up in indeed. They were the good folk of Rochdale, a town in the next valley but one from where I cut my Lancastrian teeth in Blackburn. These were cotton mill workers who were grafting sixteen hours a day and they were still more or less starving to death. Not a good look. What really got their goat was the fact that their local shop was charging three times the price for a stale loaf of bread than the bakers of Manchester were charging for something fresh out of the oven. Why? Simple. A good old fashioned monopoly was well and truly in place. They were expected to work all the hours sent by their God and then spend every penny in the local store whilst continuing to doff their caps. Their average lifespan was 37.

But they didn’t doff their caps. Instead they pushed a wheelbarrow to Manchester and back and started up their own shop. It was a twenty mile wheelbarrow commute that changed the game. They co-operated. They became a Co-Operative. They became THE Co-operative.

In theory, the mothers in those shell scarred suburbs of Damascus could do the same. In theory they could set out on a wheelbarrow convoy and clear the shelves of rice in a supermarket in one of the Assad parts of town. And the price of rice would fall by hundreds of percentage points.

The problem with that idea of course is that Assad’s soldiers would hose them down with Putin’s machine guns.

Thankfully the disgruntled storekeeper in Rochdale all those years ago wasn’t able to whistle up a company of dragoons to chop the uppity cotton workers into bite sized pieces and the rest became history.

The Co-op was born.

Cue uplifting music and a cosy montage of images showing ho much better everything is now when compared to those dark, dark days when the mills and mines were truly satanic.

So our man in Kirkconnel is a lucky man indeed. Why? Because the one and only food shop in the village is a Co-operative and there is no way that the Co-Operative movement would ever abuse a monopoly to rip people blind. Of course it wouldn’t. That would be against everything the Co-Op stands for. It would be against the very spirit of those gallant men and women of Lancashire who pushed their wheelbarrows ten miles there and ten miles back again. It would be against 170 of history and progress….

But things change with time.

Once upon a time it would have been hard to imagine Labour Prime Minister hooking up with a far right American President to invade every country they could find. Well that all changed, didn’t it?

And sadly it seems like the Co-Op has changed too.

Yesterday I did a bit of research. I parked up and did some shopping. The Co-Op in Kirkconnel has a nice electric door and inside music from the in-house Co-Op readio station gave a cosy sort of ambiance. The shop was bright and clean and the bloke behind the counter couldn’t have been more friendly. I bought 17 items. Enough to put together a four day food parcel. In each case, I chose the very cheapest option. And when I got the final total I was gobsmacked.

Check it out.

Here are the cold, hard facts. This is the price you pay for living 26 miles away from competition. This is what it looks like when capitalism achieves a yearned for monopoly   

PRODUCT                   KELLOHOLM         DUMFRIES
CUP SOUP                    £1.42                           £0.22
JAM                               £0.95                           £0.29
TINNED HAM             £1.69                           £1.00
RICE PUDDING          £1.09                           £0.15
UHT MILK                   £1.04                           £0.53
INSTANT WHIP          £0.67                           £0.17
SAVOURY RICE         £0.92                           £0.26
NOODLES                    £0.92                           £0.20
MARGARINE              £1.42                           £0.75
MEATBALLS               £0.99                           £0.40
TIN SPAGHETTI         £0.75                           £0.15
TIN SOUP                     £0.72                           £0.15
TIN BEANS                  £0.52                           £0.26
CORNFLAKES            £2.05                           £0.31
LOAF OF BREAD       £1.53                           £0.47
TIN CUSTARD            £1.09                           £0.15
BISCUITS                     £0.69                           £0.23
TOTAL                         £18.46                         £5.69

This is exactly how things looked 170 years ago in Rochdale. When we were industrial. When those ten miles that separated Rochdale from Manachester made all the difference.

Well we are post industrial now and things look pretty well exactly the same. It is 26 miles down the valley from Kirkconnel to Dumfries. Too far for a wheelbarrow. 

And the Co-Op really should be ashamed of itself.


  1. Brilliant article!! Brilliant!!
    It has always bugged me how the co op is blatantly more expensive than other supermarkets..having lived in Campbeltown and now Helensburgh however the only alternative in both towns is Tesco and having worked for them in my youth I loathe to give them my money, particularly when about 7 years ago they made a profit so obscene I've apparently chosen to forget how much but by way of thanks all staff got a tremendous bonus of.....a voucher for a bar of tesco finest chocolate.
    Gaun yersel Mark

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