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 26, 2009

Thoughts of Martin through a sleepless night

You know how it is when you are dead, dead tired. All day you think about what an absolute load of sleep you're going to get only to find that when the time comes you find yourself wide awake? Well, maybe not. In which case count yourself lucky. That was me last night.

This blog is obviously having a bad effect. As the insomnia kicked in, I got to thinking about different stuff to hunt out on Youtube to stick on a playlist. I'm 48 for Christ's sake! But maybe there are insomniac 48 year olds the world over who lie awake through the wee small hours thinking about stuff to stick on their playlists. Who the hell knows. Well, I started running lists of iconic, life changing stuff and it didn't take all that very long to get to Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream'. I guess this was the very first time in my life that somebody's words really rattled into my head. How old would I have been? Ten or eleven I guess. And all of a sudden there must have been this guy on our old rented black and white TV. Remember those days. 'Great service you get renting your colour set from Granada...' And I went from paying no attention whatsoever to being hooked like a snared trout. How many has that happened to? You can count that one by the billion.

Of course it has been a great year for mixed race couples like myself and Carol the world over. Martin started a ball rolling by daring to suggest that black kids and white kids might just hold hands one day and play together. Well some black kids and white kids grew up and got married and wound up having brown kids. And one of those brown kids just got made President and all of a sudden Mulato is the new black.

There have been lots of times when I have found Dr King's words rolling around my head. Watching the Clash at Rock against racism gigs back in the 70's whilst the dock wearing gangs of skinheads spat and snarled and seig heiled. Then a few years ago when we were on holiday in Gambia: looking out at this island out in the river. There was an old busted up white fort and a few dusty palm trees and it suddenly hit me that there was more than a passing chance that a relative of Carol and Dyonne and Courtney might well have passed through those gates a few hundred years ago. Then leaning on railings by Pier Head and looking out across the waters of the Mersey to Birkenhead and getting that nagging feeling of shame about where all the cash came from to build those big fancy buildings. Including the one with the two birds on it- the same birds that sit on the badge on the red shirt that my lads wear to go to the match. Just above where it says Carlsberg. Yeah, that one. Then hawking stuff we had imported from India around Universities in the early eighties and they all had a recently re-named Steve Biko building. Until finally a couple of years ago we climbed up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and looked down at the Reflecting Pool and thought this was the very place where it all happened. When I was three.

And then of course that never to be forgotten night last Novemeber when Barack lit up the world.

And so I gave up on the idea of sleep, trawled around Youtube, dug out the video at the top of the page and worked out how to post it. And it's posted. And I really like the music the guy has overlayed over the speech. And let's face it, these are words that you just can't get enough of. Well, I can't.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The kids of Jadeland

Yesterday I was invited to give a drug and alcohol pep talk to a bunch of youngsters at a place called Apex. Who were they? Technically they had somehow been assessed as being 'at risk of offending'. Nice to see that crystal balls are still alive and kicking. Interestingly enough hardly any of them had actually done any actual offending other than dropping litter and flicking V signs at community wardens. I think the key was that most seem to have ome from chaotic families which meant that the powers that be were well and truly convinced that they would follow the same well trodden path of crime, benefits and daytime TV as their parents. Nothing like tagging people with labels and leaving them there, eh? Being on the course entitled them to £55 a week because it was deemed that they were in training. Well, we wouldn't want anyone to think that there is a problem with youth unemployment would we? Perish the thought. I have a hypothetical question I like to put when I do these kind of things. It goes something like this. You've got £50 in your pocket and you're not allowed to blow it on drink and drugs. In fact you have two spending options. Option 1. A pal has been tossed out by his mum and dad and the homeless department have told him to take a hike. He is going to have to sleep out under a bridge and he wants £50 to buy a sleeping bag and stuff. Option 2. A member of your family has cut their leg and the wound has got infected and it is going green and grangrenous. £50 will cover the cost of some anti-biotics which will save the leg from being lopped off.
So I popped the question and all hands went up to vote to save the family leg. They always do. Bless them. However they were still looking at me like I had lost it. Next I pointed out that this was basically the choice the government is going to have to make in the nest few years. In a bankrupt Britain, the option will be NHS or the Bru. (For all the worldwide followers of this blog, in Scotland 'the Bru' means the DHSS, the social, benefits...) So basically they all needed to get their heads around the idea that one day there would be no magic cash dispensing machine to give them a free flat, £60 a week and an extensive range of extras if they could manage to come up with a baby.

The question was then asked about where they thought all the money came from. This provoked a great deal of head shaking until one young lass beamed and said 'a factory yeah. A money factory!'. How right she was. Good old Gordan Brown has of course reached the same solution. If you can't make it, print it. In the week of the the death of the now sainted Jade Goody, no doubt the tabloids will have all kinds of fun at the expense of the much reviled Chav underclass of the sink estates. How we love hate these young people who live with the unerring faith that money will magically jump into their hands once a fortnight and that the state will always provide a free flat and cover the bills. The Neverland of crisis loans and bedding allowances. For most of them, this is the way of life they have been brought up with by parents and grandparents. The Welfare State is now 50 years old and we have second and third generations of citizens for whom it is a definite lifestyle choice as mopposed to a safety net. When the money runs out and the benefits train pulls out of the station we are going to have millions of our fellow citizens who will not have the first clue what the hell to do. Whatever happened to the money factory? Whatever happened to Jade? And then it will be time for shop windows to start getting smashed. Happy days.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

I'll write it now just in case...

Have an hour and then it is the motorway south to Anfield. Over the last fortnight Disleyland has become Dreamland has become that place the Al Queda suiciders reckon they are en route to care of a belt full of C4.
4-0 against Real Madrid. As in Real Madrid! 4-1 at Old Trafford. As in AT Old Trafford. You know those old clips of the encircling Soviet Armies meeting up with each other in the snow and thereby cutting off 300,000 of Hitler's finest in Stalingrad? Just imagine how it must have felt to be a Russian on that minus twenty degree day. Knowing that you have well and truly given Hitler and all his lackeys a complete and utter kicking. Well any Scouser worth his or her salt just has to feel that way this week. We didn't just beat then. We buried them. Humiliated them. The greatest of all things about a win like that is that it lasts for years and years. Even the Mancs can't escape the fact that they were completely done. Well that's pushing it a bit. That lot would never admit anything, but what the hell. And then yesterday they go and get done again at Fulham at all places. Wheels off the wagon time and how good was it to see Super Danny Murphy slide home the dagger from the penalty spot. So all we do now is put away Villa to move to a point behind and chose down the goal difference. Then if we do, then it's maybe just maybe.....
And if we don't, then at least I have got these gloating, taunting lines down and logged. Most of us try to live out our lives as polite, reasonable human beings. I certainly do. And then it all stops for any of us stationed at either end of the 33 miles of the East Lancs Rd that seperates Anfield from Old Trafford. Then we get that whole Bosnian Serb - Bosnian Muslim thing going down. It ain't pretty but when you get a 4-1 under the belt you really don't care!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The best $10 I ever spent

I first saw Barack two years ago. He was on the TV in a budget motel in a rundown suburb of Pittsburgh where once upon a time guys had jobs making steel. They used to call the place 'Hell with the lid off', but that is by the by. He was being intervieed by a tanned anchor type with the trademark teeth and as far as I was concerned he was just a candidate who was 30 points adrift of Hilary. Then I started to listen a bit more closely and watch a bit more closely and like millions of others all over the place, I got to thinking maybe, just maybe.... So it was that I became a member of Barack's army. I got home and logged onto his site and tried to donate ten bucks. No go. Not allowed for foreign nationals which is fair enough I suppose. So I got an American friend of mine to do the business on my behalf and sent her a fiver. Oh yeah! Those were the heady days when a fiver bought you ten dollars and bankers were seen as stand up guys. And the rest of course is history.

Now $10 is a drop in the bucket of course but it was a helluva big deal for me. You see it was the first time in my life that I had even dreamt of stumping up a political donation. Well apart from buying Free Mandela merchandise back in the day. And as corny as it may seem, it made me feel pretty good. And of course I wasn't on my own. Little people the world over took their chance to blow their cash on a whisper of hope.

Yesterday I logged onto the Guardian and hit play on the video of Barrack sending his New Year's message to the people of Iran. And all of a sudden I felt even better about my one and only political donation. Talk about pure class! To surpass the sheer undiluted primordial genius of the moment when Fernado Torres made a complete mug out of Vidic and shut up the baying Mancs was always going to be a big ask. But Barack.. you did it! The video is on the player for anyone who hasn't seen it. Is it ever worth three minutes of your time.

Fantasy and nightmare



I am an author. And as an author I certainly live up to a few stereotypes. I’m broke. I smoke like a chimney. And I’m always searching for new places. For in a novel, places are the settings and the backdrops. They frame the mood and set the rhythm. A good novel is hard to come by without good places to set it off. I have always found that places never cease to be surprising. All too often they can be a spirit crushing anti climax. Like the Sphinx in Cairo or Stonehenge. But sometimes they surpass your every expectation; be it good or be it bad. You expect Auschwitz to be awful, but when you meet it face to face, it transcends every nightmare you have ever had. You expect the Taj Mahal to be pretty good, but its improbable perfection stops you dead. You worry that The Statue of Liberty might be tacky, only to find it towering and inspiring.

As an author, I seek places that wear their memories like a cloak. Places that bear the footprints of history. Places of echoes and ghosts. Find the place, and the stories will find themselves. Yet in these depressed times, many such places are way beyond my pay grade. So now is time to look to Credit Crunch travel, a technique which is available to the quarter of us who still smoke. European law allows us to buy 170 packets of duty free fags from a fellow EU country. Buy them in Luxembourg and you can save £3 a pack. 170 x 3 = £510. So there is the budget. A chance to find new places and turn a profit care of Great Britain Plc’s draconian tobacco duty.

So we start with Ryan Air. Well of course we do. Brussels for £60 return. Next a hire car; £70 for two days. And here is a Credit Crunch Travel tip to ponder on. A hire car can double up as a hotel room. The upside is the joy of eating up the dark miles of the night with no need to chase the clock. The downside is that you snatch sleep in two hour busts and wake up stiff and cranky. Tip number three and we will begin. Choose the right audiobook to keep you company through the wee small hours. I have gone for ‘Absolute Fiends’ by John Le Carre. Free at the point of delivery from the local library. So press ‘play’ and go.

5.30pm. Two hours to Luxembourg and a stop at ‘Route 66’ off junction 1 of the E42. Google it. They do Camel at £2.60 a pack.

9.30pm. Four hours of roaring autobahns and floodlit industrial towns. Mega factory after mega factory, all lit up by arc lights to reveal their epic scale. Chimneys still make smoke and containers filled with goods made to last still roll out of the loading bays. For here is a place where they still make and export stuff. More than anyone else in the world in fact. It’s called heavy industry. We used to do it once. I’ve had half an hour of side roads past Kaiserslauten. And now I’m stopped at a timbered Rasthaus complete with log burner, sausage with cabbage pickled five different ways, and accordion based Leiderhosen musak. But no customers. A Credit Crunch Friday night in the land where they still make stuff.

4.20am. Three hours sleep at a service station south of Stuttgart. If we built something like this at home there would be full page features about it. Three levels reached by spiral staircases and home to orchards of living trees interspersed with tables. The place gleams from constant cleaning. No doubt the local train is never, ever late.

9.00am. Sometimes you get lucky, and I just did. I was lucky on several different levels, but timing most of all. By six thirty, the long black night of thundering trucks at last started to fade to light. The autobahn gave way to smaller, winding roads edged with hard packed snow. And out of the multicoloured miracle of the dawn came a scene straight from ‘Lord of the Rings’. Towering ice clad peaks and mist in the valley and mirror lakes and villages from chocolate boxes.

By seven I was looking up at what I had driven all night to see. Mad King Ludwig’s fairytale Neuschwansten castle. And the reality completely outdid the pictures. Below the Schloss is the village of Hohenswangau, a squeaky clean cluster of uber-kitch hotels, gift shops and vast car parks to accommodate the visiting throngs. But at 7.00 a.m. on a crystal cold November morning, there was no throng to be seen. In fact there was nobody at all to be seen. Only me. It’s a stiff half hour walk up the hill to where the castle perches high on its rock. Pine trees and cathedral stillness and then the kind of view that all but brings tears to your eyes. And the castle itself. It’s Disneyland built many years before Walt so much as picked up a felt tip. Ludwig was a shy man who never learnt how to be part of a crowd. Instead he hid from an increasingly frightening and modern world in his very old Alpine fantasy and he built castles to match his dreams. Imagine the faces of the engineers when he told them what he wanted. Actually chaps, I want a castle like this on that rock up there. First they must have taken a long gulp of cold air. Then they got on and did it. Much like the service station south of Stuttgart. It wasn’t very long before he owed the State of Bavaria an eye watering 21 million Marks, and he showed no signs of reining in his spending. The politicians in Munich decided that enough was enough and they found some tame doctors to declare him insane. He was spending far, far too much treasure on his far fetched delusions. If only the Reichstag Senate had followed a similar course in 1933 or the U.S. Senate in 2003. A year later Ludwig was found mysteriously dead in a lake. But what a legacy!

By the time I got back down to the village hundreds of Japanese cameras were emerging from coaches and the spell was broken. Only Credit Crunch travellers who double up hire cars for hotel rooms arrive at 7 am on a November morning and have the place all to themselves. Like I said. Timing.

3.00pm The journey from fairytale to nightmare is 100 kilometres long. A drive of an hour and a half that takes you through a town called Landsberg where once upon a time a prisoner called Adolf wrote a book called ‘Mein Kampf’. It is a pretty drive to a rather ordinary little town with a truly extraordinary name.

A town called Dachau.

Holywood has given us the impression that Hitler’s camps were buried deep in grim wilderness. Not so Dachau. It is about half a mile from the town centre and ringed with houses easily old enough to have been there in 1933. No big secret then. In fact it was opened with some fanfare and the local papers ran the story on their front pages. The Germans were impressed with the way it went about its business. Properly hard time for the scum of the earth. Up at 4am. 12 hours of hard labour. Basic food. Rules which demanded that dormitory blocks shone to perfection. Every bed sheet had to be lined up just so. Every spoon in every locker had to be stored just so. When Dachau opened its doors for business, 25% of Germans were unemployed and starving. They wanted the men responsible to be brought to account. They wanted them spending their days shovelling sand and snow. Hitler wanted a place that could completely break a man’s spirit in less than a year. A place that so bad that nobody but nobody would re-offend. So why keep such a place a secret? They didn’t. Instead they allocated 2000 cons to daily gardening duty to keep the camp looking nice for visitors. Surprisingly enough, less than 500 prisoners died in the first six years which is a scary number in 2008, but hardy a drop in the bucket back then. Maybe you might be starting to feel just a tad uncomfortable here? For if our gallant government, who aspire to lock us away for seven weeks without charge, were to open a place like Dachau for drug dealers and gang members and paedophiles, then or course our gallant tabloid press would no doubt cheer them to the rafters.

The onset of war gave the chance for the lunatics to take over the asylum in Dachau and by the time ashen faced Americans arrived, the number of dead was too great to count. So if we want to get a feel of how the Nazi madness started, then Dachau is as good a place as any to start. And the fact that European Human Rights legislation is the main reason that our gallant government would find it impossible to open such an obvious vote winner today shows that our EU neighbours have longer and better memories than ours. And if we want to find real Bavarian lunatics, then Hitler and his appalling cronies seem to be much more the genuine article than poor old King Ludwig. Give me fairytale over nightmare any time. Oh, and by the way. Unlike at Auschwitz the birds DO sing. They are crows. They go ‘Kaw…kaw…kaw…’

9.30pm. A £25 a night hotel on the banks of the Rhine. A mixed grill, a few beers and a 5am start for the plane home. Thinking time. Digesting time. And it occurs that everything is linked. The local council wants a service station complete with split level indoor orchards. OK. We can do that. A mad king wants a fantasy castle high up on an Alpine rock. OK. We can do that. A mad Fuhrer wants a place that can break a man into a million pieces in less than a year. OK. We can do that. It’s the Vurpsrung durst technik mind set. If you’re going to do a job….

And so to the bill. My 48 hours have run to about £250 all in. A profit then. I have driven 1000 miles and when I go to sleep it will be with pictures of one impossibly beautiful castle and a quarter of a million faces of men who could have used some Human Rights legislation to contain the lunacy before it got out of hand.