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, November 16, 2017

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

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


Five thousand.


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3000 packets of Always Maxi Thick arrive at their destination.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

FINDING HEARTBREAK IN THE PRICE OF A BAG OF POSHO.


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


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


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


Yeah. Seriously!


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Sadness and utter inspiration all rolled into one.


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







Sunday, November 12, 2017

A NEW JOURNEY BEGINS



When does any journey really start? Right now I have the feeling of someone about to embark on a new journey, but in truth I probably crossed the real start line many years ago. The ten year old me under the smoky skies of Blackburn reading books about Africa with a mix of wonder and awe. Or the rough edged eighteen year old me who rode a crawling ex army Bedford truck all the way across the Sahara and the Congo to white beaches of Indian Ocean. Or a trip to Uganda in my mid twenties and the gut wrenching reality of the Aids crisis at its peak. Then later. A father now, standing by the brown waters of the Gambia River with Carol and my young sons under a burning sun. Staring out at the island in the centre of the flow. Long deserted white buildings almost invisible under a vast tangle of vines. An old slave fort. A ghost of a memory of a truly vast crime committed by my people. Maybe even a place where relatives of my boys passed through en route to the killing fields of Barbados.

In chains

A West African school. Windows without glass. A rusty iron roof. A dusty clay football pitch hammered flat by years worth of hard, bare feet. And a sea of beaming smiles. And we had a business at a time which meant we were able to shake on a deal with an old Irish missiorary in the capital. £50 a month into his acount in Dublin which was turned into £50 a month of pencils and pens and exercise books. And for a while letters would land every month with exotic African stamps bearing news or many more children reading and writing.

And then our business went bust and we had to write to say there would be no more pencils and exercise books and pens. But after the school, we always said a day would come when we would do something again. In Africa. In the homeland of the ancestors of our two boys.

Or did this this journey really begin a few short months ago. Walking the dogs under grey Scottish skies with a BBC World Service podcast in my ears. A documentary about the country of Uganda where the average age is sixteen. All the challenges and opportunities faced by a land overflowing with the hopes and dreams so many young people. And suddenly there was something which was so shockingly simple it stopped me in my tracks.

Most Ugandan school girls miss a quarter of their education because they do not have access to any sanitary ware. It is a problem which lacks any degree of complexity. This isn't an issue made complicated by local customs and laws. Instead it is the biology of every female citzen of this planet of ours. Straight away the problem resonated and rang bells. I recalled Carol writing to Scotland's Health Minister to point out how female heroin users going onto the methadone programme would experience extra heavy periods and how we really needed Government funding to provide good quality sanitary ware for our clients.

We never heard back.

School girls missing a quarter of their education due to a lack of sanitary ware. A huge but simple problem requiring a very straight forward fix.

Provide sanitary ware.

I took the problem home and we had a talk and decided the time had come for us to try and make a contribution to the homeland of the ancestors of our two boys.

So here I am perched on a terrace looking out across the waters of Lake Bunyonyi and feeling for all the world like some kind of wannabe Hemmingway as colourful swallows swoop under the under the eaves of the tin roof and a roll up smokes away in the ashtray at my side.

To get to the 'Lake of little birds' means a 20 km rutted track which climbs away from the manic noisy streets of Kabale and then up and over the steep terraced hills. If a few hours have passed since the last rain, you can maybe average about ten miles an hour. If the deluge is more recent, then five miles an hour is a more realistic number. The road is a red clay mix of trenches and potholes which hangs off the steep slopes which rise from the water in a vivid quilt of green.

Seeing Lake Bunyonyi for the first time is a like entering the film set for Jurassic Park. A hundred years ago the world had many places like this. Now there are very few left. It is impossible not to feel privileged to be here.

But I digress.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, Google took me to contacts and conversations and Janet at the Rafiki Foundation and finally an introduction to Reverend Benon who is the headmaster at a school of five hundred in the hills by the border with Rwanda. E mails traversed the ether from Dumfries and Galloway to Kabale Province and then back again. The Reverend confirmed everything the World Service documentary had reported. Yes, this is a huge problem. And yes, the answer to the problem isn't all at complicated. There is no shortage of sanitary ware in Kabale Province. There is a shortage of money to buy sanitary ware. As soon as it was clear we would be able to actually achieve something worthwhile, we booked our passage.

It has been nearly a week now and we are becoming adjusted to the African way. It is impossible to overstate how impressive these people are. For a start, just about everyone who waves from the road side looks like an Olympian. The big deal we make about six packs at home seems laughable out here. The tasks these guys carry out for ten hours of every day would probably be deemed too severe for a proposed stongest man reality show at home.

Almost everyone here is self employed. They wake up early without a penny in their pocket and step out into the morning light to duck, dive and hustle. The youngest and the oldest stay home to raise the crops. Every hut is surrounded by a patchwork of ever rotating crops – bananas and corn and sorghum and sweet potatoes and beans. Goats and cows are taken to grass verges of the roads by their five year old shepherds. The young men and women of the family ride the back of bikes and scooters to the hyper energy of the streets to carve a few dollars out of their chosen niche. What looks like utter chaos at first glance soon achieves a miraculous kind of order when you look closely enough.

On the surface of things, the cold hard facts are daunting. The average wage here is about $3 a day and yet food is expensive. A 2kg bag of rice costs about the same here as it does in Tesco at home. Every street buzzes with swarms of Buda Buda riders. A Buda Bada is a motorbike which trades in giving 'backies' from A to B. Sometimes they carry one passenger. Sometimes two. Sometimes three. The loads they manage to carry beggar belief. As we tip toe our way around the pot holes in our rented Toyota 4x4, the Buda Buda boys race past us complete with 50kg sacks of plantains and beaming grins. They don't tend to do helmets here. Of course they don't.

A Buda Buda boy will earn £6 on a good day. £2 goes to the guy who rents out the bike. £1 goes on fuel and maintenance. Which leaves a profit of about £3 for twelve hours of hustling. Not enough to pay for a roof over the head and the basics of life. Instead this is the cash which buys the family the stuff the fields cannot provide. Soap and school uniforms for younger siblings and doctor's bills for grandparents. The family is the Welfare State. The safety net is all down to relatives and neighbours and villages. Life is physically hard. Relentlessly challenging. And yet nobody is left isolted and lonely and worthless.

Even on a good day you would be lucky to see ten percent of the pedestrians on one of our empty streets wearing a smile. Here the streets are a rolling soap opera where everyone beams. There is so much we could learn from these extraordinary people if only we were minded to. But we aren't of course. Instead we shrink in horror at the though of having so little.

The endless, wall to wall friendliness shown to us is truly humbling, especially in the light of the disgraceful way we have behaved in these parts down the centuries. Nelson Mandela gave us all an object lesson on how African culture treasures forgiveness over all other things. Past crimes are locked away in inpregnable vaults. This is place where only today and tomorrow matters. Yesterday is very much deemed to be dead and gone. Thank goodness for that! Otherwise I very much doubt if the guys at the border would have been willing to stick and East African Tourist Visa into our passports. Instead they would have stared us down with cold, hard eyes. Are you serious? After what you people did here?

So tomorrow our journey really begins. We will climb into the Toyota and set on on what we now think of as the 'Lollipop Run'. The boot is well stocked with big bags of Kojak style lollies and and kids of the 'Lake of Little Birds' are getting to know our vehicle well. They leave their goats and come cascading down from the fields to jump in gleeful anticipation of the white guy and the black lady in the 4X4.

Then it is a meeting outside the Kabale branch of the Stanbic Bank to meet our guide, Ambrose who will take us to meet the kids at the school in the hills. Our goal for this trip is to make sure every girl in the school will be able to attend every day of class for the next year. It seems like this goal will be achievable.

And then? Then we will have a new responsibility. What we are able to bring to the table is thirteen years experience of running a charity. Of by hook or by crook coming up with enough funds to help out 5000 people a year who lack the means to buy food.

To come up with 5000 sticking plasters to cover up the wounds of our Government's mean cruelty. This time we have the honour of doing more than handing out sticking plasters. Education is the key to everything here. When education is added to the vast reserves of energy, optimism, ambition of Uganda's vast army of young people, almost anything will be possible.

Who knows how far this journey is going to take us. We don't. I guess we need to take each new mile with a slow African stride. Duck, dive and hustle and one way or another you get there by the end of the day.

This a place where it is hard not to feel just a little superstitious. A couple of days ago I had a spooky feeling when I checked my e mails. The inbox contained a message form the Scottish Government. I few weeks ago I filled in application for funding for our foodbank to offer emergency sanitary ware in each of the 23 collection points across Dumfries and Galloway where our food parcels are stored. The timing of the acceptance seemed like a pretty encouraging omen to me!

And maybe just maybe, somewhere out there the ancestors of our two boys will look down us as we bounce over the pot holes of the 'Lollipop Run' and give our efforts a quiet nod of approval. After all, every single human being on our planet can be traced back to the vast Rift Valley which provides a home for this 'Lake of a thousand birds'. In the end we are all Africans. Sadly those of us who live out our lives in the cold lands of the north have forgotten how to live our lives in the African way.

It seems like this journey of ours might have many miles to come.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

DO YOU WANT TO FEEL INSPIRED? MAYBE THIS WILL DO THE TRICK. I THINK IT JUST MIGHT.




A month ago our food bank was mired in crisis. Now we are more or lass out of it. This is what hapened.

On 17 September I went through what has become something of a familiar exercise. The spreadsheet exercise. Some basic mathematics care of my laptop. Money in the bank. Projected income. Projected expenditure.

And there it was. The digital hole. A great, wide, yawning digital hole. An all too familiar digital hole. £15,000 at the absolute minimum. At the most optimistic. And the worst case scenario? Christ. £20,000? Maybe more.

The sight of the digital financial hole on my screen didn't come as any kind of surprise. Of course it didn't. The hole had been opening up for months. With every rejected funding application it opened up a little more. Yawned a little deeper.

The future on the screen was a bleak future. Money enough to make it to the middle of January and then the hole. Then the unthinkable. An icy cold day in January. A hard damp wind sending empty crisp packets scuttling along Buccleuch St. A hated sign on the front door of the foodbank.

'CLOSED DUE TO LACK OF FUNDING'

Six lousy words which haunt anyone who manages a front line charity in these dismal times. 

And huddled figures reading the six words and having to accept the fact that the referral letters in their pockets have become meaningless. Like Zimbabwean Dollars. No emergency food parcels today. Or tomorrow.

Six lousy words.

And the feeling of gnawing dread was hardly unfamiliar as I sat in front of the speadsheet. Oh no. Not remotely unfamiliar. It was the same gnawing feeling of dread I had known a year earlier. And the year before.

Once upon a time, if we filled in twenty funding application forms at least four of them would say 'yes' and send us a cheque. Back in the day. Back in a world yet to be thrown into an endless sea of poverty by a handful of bankers. Now filling in endless application forms is beginning to feel rather like buying up handfuls of Lottery tickets.

And so once again First Base was back in the last chance saloon. And once again there was only one show in town. One last throw of the dice.

So it was time to lay our crisis out on the table and ask the community to bail us out. To keep us going. To get us through. To make sure my computer would not have to produce a sheet of paper bearing the dreaded six words.

'CLOSED DUE TO LACK OF FUNDING'.

The moment of truth had been coming for a while. And when you ask the public to bail you out, you need to offer some kind of a hook. A year earlier I lived off one of our food parcels for a week. Yeah, I know. No exactly a great hardship. This year I had written a novel. My 25th. 'The Last Colonial War'. The tale to be published at the rate of a chapter a day on this page as well as being on sale for £4 a copy in the Amazon Kindle Store. (We get to keep £2.30 by the way. Amazon get 90p. Philip Hammond get's 80p).

17 September and time for the moment of truth. Time to send a digital begging letter out into the ether. Time to go public. Time to rattle the can and look hopeful. Time to take a drink in the last chance saloon.

It is hard to find the right words to describe the feeling of cold dread I felt as I hit the 'publish' button and launched the appeal. The public saved our bacon in the autumn of 2015. And they saved us again in the autumn of 2016.

Would the autumn of 2017 be our very own version of a bridge too far? Would the appeal fall on deaf ears this time? Was it to be three strikes and out?

It is almost impossible not to sit and stare at the e mail inbox to wait for incoming messages from 'Just Giving'.

'Someone has just made a donation to your page'.

Would they come? Or would the inbox remain undisturbed?

Well the e mails from Just Giving came. And letters dropped through the letterbox. And cheques arrived in the post.

And now a month has passed and my laptop will not be required to write those six dreaded words on a cold day in the middle of January. Well over two hundred people have made sure we will once again get the chance to fight another day.

Another winter.

So there is no need to type out six words. Instead I have the pleasure of typing just the one word. A simple word which I hope will properly reflect the way everyone at First Base feels.

THANKS

Six letters. Not six words. Six very heartfelt letters.

Anyway. I promised you inspiration. So here's some inspiration. Here's a small respite from the hateful selfish world of Brexit and Trump.

Our local paper – The Standard – once again gave our appeal the oxygen of publicity. A local minister read the article and duly flagged it up to his Sunday morning congregation. When the service was over, he was approached by one of his flock. They had taken his words on board. And they wanted to help. They wanted to donate £3500 just so long as the church would handle everything and make sure they could be anonymous. 

Which means I have absolutely no idea who you are. And your generosity staggers me. Astounds me. I really hope you are reading this. If you are, thankyou. A huge thank you.

As our online appeal ticked up towards the 50% mark, I received an e mail from an Annan based tech company called Creatomatic. They had been watching the progress of our appeal and they wanted to help. They had noticed First Base lacked a website and so they had built one for us. And would we like some help in spreading the word via Facebook? And Euan, a really good photographer they worked, with was keen to come along to take a bunch of photos for us to use as and when we needed then.

And one more thing. They committed to match any online donation we received until October 23. They committed to help to get us up to our £10,000 target by hook or by crook.

They e mailed their customers and turbocharged our campaign. Right now the total stands at £8700 and it looks like we will make it all the way. Creatomatic's spectacular generosity has attracted some coverage in the local press and getting them to accept any credit has been like pulling teeth. They have absolutely no interest in trying to leverage some positive PR out of what they have done for us. To call them 'good people' is a million miles shy of doing them justice. Well there is no obligation whatsoever for me to play ball. If you are reading this and you need a new website or some advice on social media marketing, then look them up. Creatomatic. Annan. They are bloody good at what they do and they deserve a chance of your business. Shameless advertising? Of course it is.

Are you at all inspired yet? Maybe just a little bit?

Well if you are teetering on the edge this might just get you there.

A few days into our campaign I received a letter which almost knocked me clean off my chair. The lady who penned the letter wishes to remain anonymous and has asked me describe her as a retired, 'YES' lady who is annoyed at her own generation for constantly using the ballot box to stamp on the dreams of the young. She said she had been donating food and small amounts of money to us for many years. Now for the first time in her life, a pension refund meant she was in a position 'to make a real difference'. A real difference? A few lines further and I discovered the extent of the real difference she was planning.

£5000

What an extra-ordinary way to spend such a windfall. No cruise to Barbados. No seventy inch 3D tele. None of the above. Instead she chose to help the hundreds of people in her own community who will need a foodbank this winter. Our foodbank.

What can you say? It is genuinely hard to find the right words to give this kind of generosity any kind of justice. I called round to see her and her partner a few days later in order to get Gift Aid forms signed. What a charming couple. I kept trying to say thank you and she kept telling me not to because it was a genuine privilege to be in a position to make such a difference to so many.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but her words put me in mind of a scene from Apocalypse Now where Kurtz is full of respect for his Viet Cong adversories.

“Give me ten divisions of men like that, and our problems here would be over very quickly.”

Imagine, if everyone had the same mindset of this 'retired 'YES' supporting' lady then we would indeed live in a much better and kinder country.

Yeah, yeah. Utopian nonsense. Get yourself back into the real world Frankland. Fair enough. The real world is never far away.

Well, this particular 'retired, 'YES' supporting lady certainly inspired me. I hope you feel the same. At which point I really should point out our Just Giving campaign still has another £1300 to go.

Any chance..... ?

And I should also point out Creatomatic will be matching all donations we receive until Monday 23 October.

So. I'm done. I hope this blog might in small way have restored your faith in humanity. We can do all kinds of good stuff when we put our minds to it.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

'THE LAST COLONIAL WAR' - CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT


CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT


THE EXIT STRATEGY

FORT GEORGE

Our Situation Room had none of the whistles and bells of the English counterpart. There were six of us. Myself, Angus, two Captains and two tech guys. We had no satellite images, no drone feed. Instead, we tried to judge the course of the battle via a selection of barked commands which were played out through a tinny speaker.

Finally, 'JJ' Jackson's voice brought clarity.

Are you there, First Minister?”

Yes 'JJ'. I'm here.”

The operation was a complete success, sir." The words emerged from the speaker flat and lifeless. I could tell Angus was struggling to find the right way to react.

Have we taken many casualties?”

Some. Not many. It's too early for any kind of accuracy. Less than we anticipated I think.”

Thank God for that. And the English?”

A long pause.

It's a bloody slaughter house.”

An even longer pause.

So you will proceed as planned?”

Of course sir. Is Sam with you?”

She is.”

Message from Wendel. He's fine, but they lost one of the guys. He's heading to Glasgow with the others. He says he'll be with you tomorrow.”

When I heard the two words 'He's fine', a damn burst inside me. One minute I was standing with my arms locked into a fold. The next minute I all but collapsed into a chair feeling like I had been punched in the guts. I only just managed to speak.

Thank you 'JJ'. Who was it? The one who.....”

It was Nazir.”

There was no more to say because there was so very much to say. But this was not the time to say any of it. There would be plenty of time for a million words in the months and years to come. Now a kind of despondent silence took hold of us and held on tight.

I cried in silence as a vast ocean of relief swept through me. I hadn't allowed my brain to consider the prospect of a future without Wendel. Not once. Not for a second. Instead, I had immersed myself in playing my part. I think we all had.

Angus sat very still, utterly lost in his thoughts. His expression was an open book. He didn't speak. He didn't need to.

What have I done?

What have I done?

The bitter pill of victory. Words from Dylan Thomas jumped into my jumbled thoughts.

'The hand that signed the paper felled a city.'

My best friend's dad. All those sleep overs and lifts to after school activities. Barbeques in the garden and trips to the cinema.

And now this. So many dead. So many broken.

*

LOCHIE BRIDGE

'JJ' Jackson went into a kind of furious overdrive. He tore around the field of battle in a 4x4 screaming orders. Soon his screams were echoed by hundreds of sergeants and corporals.

Every Scottish soldier had been briefed about what to do in the aftermath of the battle. They had been told all phones, cameras or recording devices of any kind were banned. Now they took the phones of the English soldiers.

The living and the dead.

The phones were thrown into a growing pile and eventually burned. The five masts which gave mobile phone coverage to the valley had been blown up the moment the Legionnaires had opened fire. 'JJ' and Marc had pulled no punches when they explained their plan of battle to the First Minister. The plan was to deliver the maximum amount of carnage in the minimum amount of time. A win would be an ugly win.

And now the quiet valley floor looked like some kind of medieval depiction of the fires of hell.

Thousands of wounded men were driven to every hospital within a hundred miles. Many didn't make it.

The English prisoners were gathered up and ordered to form ranks. 'JJ' addressed them and told them they would be required to join his men in the task of clearing the field.

Once the injured were patched up and sent away to hospital, the dead were zipped into hundreds of body bags and loaded onto trucks.

As soon as the ground was cleared of the dead and the wounded, scrap merchants were allowed onto the field to collect up the wrecked vehicles. They were also required to give up their phones before driving their vehicles into the valley.

So it was that the battle of Lochie Bridge found something else in common with the battles which had gone before.

Bannockburn and Dunbar and Flodden and Culloden.

There was not a single photograph or snatch of video footage to recall the desperate, blood-soaked minutes when so many men died so badly.

Instead, all there would be for the historians were the stark statistics. An army of over 10,000 had been ambushed by a force of 3100 and had suffered total defeat in a matter of minutes.

The English force suffered a casualty rate of over 80%.

The raw statistics carried enough horror. Angus Campbell knew in his bones that for Scotland and England to have any hope of a decent future relationship, the story of the battle would need to be told in numbers and words.

Not pictures.

For the thousands of words such pictures would paint would poison the future.

The clean-up took three days and many of the men involved left Lochie Bridge with mental scars which would never heal.

*

LONDON

Edward Montford called a Cabinet Meeting for 7.30. In the hours following General Moore's devastating call, he had worked his way through a whole sleeve of Oxys. Now he felt as if a vast blackness was closing over him. He could tell from the faces around the table the news hadn't leaked. Not that it mattered. Nothing much mattered. Not anymore.

I am afraid I have bad news. Our convoy was ambushed this afternoon. Operation Cumberland was completely wiped out. Destroyed. Annihilated......"

He realised he was mumbling. Like an old drunk in a doorway. Like a drooling old fool in a care home.

Enough.

It was all too much of an effort. The blackness was wrapping him up.

Swallowing him. Jonah and the whale.

Just a few more words. The very last words.

Of course I will resign. Of course...”

And there they were. The trees of Birnam Wood. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. High up on the top of Dunsinane Hill.

Cheering. Cheering trees.

Cheering fucking trees.....

Ten minutes later the Downing Street doctor dragged the Prime Minister out from the warm nothingness of his overdose. An ambulance collected him from the back door.

*

FORT GEORGE

Sir, there's a call for you. The French President.”

Right. Fine. I'll take it in my office.... “

I watched the First Minister straighten himself and step back into his designated role.

Are you OK, Angus?” I asked.

Yes. I think so.”

He did the basics. He left the room. He strode into his office. He sat. He took a long breath and he picked up the phone.

Hello, Valerie."

I have heard the news. Marc has briefed me. A total victory. You should be very proud, I think.”

Not really. I feel..... Christ, I don't know …. polluted....”

The sound of a cigarette being lit brought a trace of a smile to his face.

War is ugly, Angus. In time you will understand there was no choice. You have led your country well.”

Thanks, Valerie. And on behalf of the people of Scotland, please allow me a moment to thank the people of France for being there for us. It will never be forgotten,"

Smoke inhaled and exhaled.

You know Angus, over the last few weeks I have been thinking a lot about history. In the past France has made promises to Scotland and failed to keep them. It is good to have finally put it right. It was time, I think.”

They lapsed into silence. Eventually, Valerie broke it.

Shall I make the call, Angus?”

Yes. Please do.”

*

WASHINGTON DC

President James Buchanan had been in the middle of a photo call with the President of Peru when he was called away by a whispered message in his ear.

Minutes later he bounced into the kind of Situation Room the Generals in charge of the English and Scottish armies could only have dreamed of.
There were lots of furrowed brows.

What have you got for me, Bob?"

Things are still unclear. Satellite images appear to show a major confrontation. We can't be 100% sure, but it seems the Scottish have staged some kind of ambush.”

Any indications of what has happened?”

Well, yes sir, we have but we're going to need to check the images closely before we can give any kind of categoric scenario evaluation....”

For Christ's sakes, Bob. Who won?”

Sir. At this time we believe the Scottish army has prevailed.”

Prevailed?”

Yes, sir. You want my best guess? Looks like a turkey shoot."

Buchanan pulled off his tie and demanded coffee. He told an aide to convey his apologies to the President of Peru and promised to call him later. He was going nowhere.

Over the next hour, the story of the battle of Lochie Bridge slowly emerged.

Unbelievable.

Sir. You have a call. It is the President of France.”

OK. I'll take in the office.”

Good afternoon, James.”

And a very good afternoon to you too, Valerie. I hope you are well."

But of course. I presume you have heard the news from Scotland?”

Not really. We have been watching the pictures from our satellites. It looks like the English just got their butts kicked. Are we right?”

Yes, James, you are right. The Scottish have achieved a decisive victory. The English column has been entirely destroyed.”

Entirely destroyed?”

Yes, James.”

Jesus H Christ.”

Indeed.”

Well, many thanks for bringing fully up to speed Valerie.....”

Actually James, this is not the reason for my call."

OK?”

I have been having discussions with Angus Campbell. He has some ideas about how a peace agreement might be reached. He would like you to be the broker.”

Buchanan sat back and lifted his feet up onto the desk. This was getting interesting.

I'm listening.”

Well, there are the basics of course. All English soldiers will be given safe passage back across the border. All prisoners of war will be returned immediately. The injured will be returned home as soon as they are well enough to travel. All the bodies of the fallen will be returned.”

And are there many? Bodies?”

There are thousands.”

Christ. Go on Valerie.”

Angus Campbell is not willing to negotiate with Prime Minister Montford. But maybe he won't have to. My people think Montford will almost certainly resign. The First Minister's main concern is what is going happen in England. First the collapse in the value of the pound and now this defeat..... He thinks there might be total chaos. I agree with him.”

So do I.”

So. He is willing to make an offer. If the Bank of England decides to issue five hundred billion pounds’ worth of ten year Government bonds at 3%, the Governments of Scotland and Qatar will buy all of them.”

At 3%?”

At 3%.”

That's one hell of an offer.”

There is more. The Scottish government is willing to write off the cost of all unpaid electricity debt. Finally, France has agreed to cancel our contracts for 30 water tanker deliveries per month to enable the Scottish Government to meet the needs of England.”

A grin grew across Buchanan's face. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't half a trillion pounds the ball park profit those boys made when they sold the pound short all the way down to fifty cents?"

I do believe it was.”

The sly old bastard. OK. I'm sold. Something tells me you will probably want all of this to go down in the Palace of Versailles?”

A chuckle. “How very perceptive of you, James. Rather a good look for France, don't you think?”

*

Angus didn't really know what to feel when Valerie Latour called him with the news. He knew he really should be punching the air.

He didn't feel like it. Nothing could have lifted the flatness of his mood. I picked up the gist of the news from listening to his end of the call.

It's wonderful news, Angus.”

Yes. I suppose it is. It just doesn't feel that way. I'm going to take some time out, Sam. I'm going to drive down to Lochie Bridge. I need to see it. It would be wrong not to. And before you ask, the answer is no. I'm not letting you anywhere near the place and if you try anything I'll have you locked up. OK?"

OK.”

He ordered a vehicle and refused a driver. He drove south down the A9 and spent three hours in the midst of the horror.

*

VERSAILLES

By the time Airforce One touched down at Charles De Gaulle airport a week later, the Versailles Peace Agreement was already a done deal. The English Government had resigned from power three hours after the resignation of the Prime Minister. A Government of National Unity was announced with the Leader of the Opposition at the helm.

The new all-party Cabinet was in no mood to look James Buchanan's gift horse in the mouth. It took them less than twenty minutes to promise to sign on the dotted line.

England spent the next few days in a state of shock. First, there was the news of what had happened to the army at Lochie Bridge. Then there was the news of the generous peace offer from Edinburgh. The EFP tried to stir up public anger but the mobs they managed to put on the street seldom added up to more than fifty. After three days they gave up and disappeared into the footnotes of history.

The vast, vast majority of the people of England were simply relieved it was all over. By the end of the week, an English pound was capable of purchasing $0.92 and the threat of empty shelves in the supermarkets was beginning to fade.

Four days after the battle, an unexpected belt of low pressure formed up over the North Atlantic and treated the British Isles to three full days of old school summer rain. Many took the grey skies and gurgling gutters as a sign of better things to come.

Of course, there were prolonged celebrations all across Scotland and pubs were pretty well drunk dry. Every town saw huge crowds dancing and singing in the rain. However such celebrations were street level only. The newly restored Government in Edinburgh avoided all traces of triumphalism. A strict tone of business as usual was adopted and press demands for the 'warts and all story' of the battle of Lochie Bridge were batted away.

Wendel and I were both invited to the signing ceremony in one of the Palace of Versailles's many gilded halls. I went along. Wendel said it wasn't his thing.

It has to be said, Valerie Latour put on a hell of a show

First Minister Angus Campbell and Interim Prime Minister Jennifer Saxby signed on the dotted line and shook hands for the cameras whilst the Presidents of France and America looked on.

Nobody smiled.

*

LOCHIE BRIDGE

I finally visited Lochie Bridge ten months after the guns had fallen silent. I visited with Wendel and Omar and Davie and Alf and Faisal and Tariq and Moses.

We laid flowers for Nazir at the newly erected memorial to the fallen. We stood by the small stone bridge and looked up and down the shallow valley. Steady traffic rolled along the A9.

Apart from the memorial, there was no evidence of the battle which decided what people were by now calling 'The Last Colonial War'. There were cows in the fields and sheep on the sides of the valley. A crop of spring barley was starting to fill out. Finches flitted about in a blackthorn hedge. A couple of rabbits showed their faces and then hopped away.
We stayed there for nearly an hour and not a word was spoken. I had wondered if the valley would be haunted by thousands of angry ghosts. It wasn't. Well, none that I could sense.

Instead, everything seemed uncomfortably normal. A quiet spring day in the Highlands of Scotland.

The independent nation of Scotland.

I looked at the faces of the men who had fought for my country's continued independence.

A Scotsman. A Welshman. An Englishman. Three Afghans. One Ugandan.

All fully adopted Scots now. Even the Englishman. My Englishman.

Their eyes said all that needed saying about what had happened on that fateful afternoon ten months earlier.

The day they lost Nazir.

The day the Last Colonial War was settled.

We got into our people carrier and drove out of the valley and into the rest of our lives.

                                             THE END

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I HAVE WRITTEN THIS STORY TO RAISE FUNDS FOR THE FOODBANK I MANAGE IN DUMFRIES, SOUTH WEST SCOTLAND. OVER THE COMING WINTER OVER 3000 PEOPLE WILL COME THROUGH OUR DOORS AND RIGHT NOW WE DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH CASH TO HELP THEM ALL OUT. MAYBE YOU MIGHT BE WILLING TO HELP US OUT BY BUNGING A COUPLE OF QUID ONTO OUR JUSTGIVING PAGE? I HOPE SO. JUST FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW. I HOPE YOU ENJOY THE REST OF THE BOOK AND IF DO, PLEASE SHARE IT. MARK.