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.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A full on Olympics rant from the ever forgotten North

Well it has to be said that Danny Boyle didn’t half pull one out of the hat on Friday night. I don’t suppose we should be all that surprised: the guy has class. And as a result the country seems have fallen head over heels into a full on Olympic love in. And I don’t suppose we should be all that surprised about that either. So it seems like the right time for an old fashioned Olympic rant from the ever forgotten north.

Legacy! Christ if I hear one more uber earnest jumped up civil servant wittering on about what a super duper legacy the Games will leave for future youth I will put a brick through the tele. Well, I won’t. At least I hope I don’t. Can’t afford to.

I did a sum a couple of years ago when the Olympics tab ran over ten billion. Had we decided to do something to improve the lives of future generations of youngsters that had a tad more legacy about it than a fortnight’s worth of running, jumping, dressaging and beach volleyballing in our beloved capital we might have done this. We could have built a £1 million youth centre for every 10,000 of population. As in five in Dumfries. Seventy in Liverpool. Christ, there would be 800 in London. Pop quiz. Which would leave the greater legacy? Which would be more likely to stop swarms of youngsters hitting the streets of the future to smash up shops and brick lines of policemen?

It seems like the run up to the Olympics and the first couple of days have very effectively showcased all that is utterly shite about 2012 Britain. Time to rant. The BBC! Now let’s get something straight here. I am a monumental fan of the BBC. I don’t begrudge a single penny of the licence fee. The Beeb is there as a bulwark against Murdoch, a place where countless millions all across the planet can tune in for the truth. And yet time after time in the run up to the great event the BBC news would give over time to David bloody Beckham to give his regal views on the coming festivities. David Beckham who has never been an Olympian for so much as a second of his sporting career. David Beckham who has never won so much as a single honour on any world stage. But never mind all that. Saint David is the celeb to end all celebs. And getting David on the news bumps up viewing figures. The thing is guys, this isn’t and never will be news. If you were ITV it would be forgivable. They need adverts or they go bust and sticking Saint David in front of the camera is always what the big advertising boys like McDonalds and Nike demand and crave. But the BBC does not need advertising. You take money off every one of us to ensure that when you do news it is actually news, not pandering to bloody celebrities. Sure the great British public would always prefer a cosy five minutes with Saint David to being told how many toddlers have been blown to bits by high explosive ordinance in the high rise blocks of Alleppo.

Then there was the quiet unbelievable security fiasco. No point trolling all over old ground. I had loads of guys in at the Agency sick as parrots about it. All over Britain there are strapping lads chasing jobs in the full knowledge that they have about a one in fifty chance of getting a result. And then some coiffeured prick on a million year appears before a Select Committee to say he was sorry that they couldn’t manage to recruit anyone to earn a tenner an hour in a nation riddled by unemployment. But was he about to give up his £57 million management fee? Not a chance. And will we pay him? Course we will. Once the dust has settled and the lawyers have done their stuff.

Next it was time for a full on media panic about the airports as the wicked, wicked, wicked unions planned their wicked, wicked strike! My god, those wicked, wicked Muslim types will be swarming in with backpacks filled with Semtex. Come on. Does the media really think that the boys with the long beards living in Pakistani caves will suddenly jump to their feet and punch the air when they tune into the World Service? Come on Abdul, we’re in business here! Load up the bang, bang  and get onto quick. The way is clear! Mark Sewotka has done a Moses job and opened a path. What utter nonsense. If Al Queda have anything in mind they will have been planning it for years. It is what they do. Or try to at least. They’ll already be here and will have been so for a while, probably all their lives. They are not hanging around the Souk on the off chance that Mark Sewotka will call his guys out on strike.

Opening ceremony. And yes, the bits I saw on the news were great. But what did it show? Danny was tasked with showcasing what Britain is all about with a particular emphasis on the Asian market. So what did we say to the Chinamen with all the cash? Once we were rural. Then for a while we did factories. Then we blew the country’s savings on two life or death tussles with the Germans. And even when we were broke we produced the NHS out of the hat. Fair enough. And the bit we can be proud about our Empire history is the fact that we have become genuinely multi-cultural. Fair enough. But what do have now that the rest of the world wants. Once upon a time it was ships and trains and cars and clothes and cutlery. Now it is Mr Bean, Saint David, James Bond and the Queen. The Chinese have all the money and they make all the stuff. We have creative guys and a bunch of celebs. Forget the ship yards and steel mills. We have Saint David. Football, celebs and the Royal Family. The last assets of Great Britain Plc. Christ.

And then we had all those empty seats. Just like at the Cup Final and every other sporting event where the best seats in the house are ear marked for the corporations whilst the fans are kept out, made to queue and overcharged. The Olympics have managed to become the ultimate showcase for the rampant Corporations. We even passed a law through Parliament to ensure that the chip shops of East London can only sell chips with fish. The rest belongs to McDonalds. Like they say, what’s the difference between the Olympics and a primary school? It is against the law to sell McDonalds at a primary school. Coz it’s unhealthy.

And so it seems that the Olympics are completely symbolic of everything we are. The little people are shoved to one side to ballot for tickets and queue to get in and to get ripped blind once they get there. The corporations are given carte blanche to bully any little business they like and leave swathes of empty seats to rub it in. The celebs are pandered to, the politician spout utter crap and Saint David is everywhere.

What a sad joke we have become.      

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Memories from the days I sold cow food - a comment for the Guardian

Why do we always forget the basics?
Once upon a time, not so long ago, we used to subsidise farming. Why? Because in the early 40's a few not particularly high tech U Boats damn near managed to starve us to death. Why? Because we live on an island - 60 million of us. Is the world volotile? You bet! Does our Navy still rule the waves? Lake Windermere perhaps. All of which means that should things go pear shaped like they did in the early 40's it is a pretty good idea to make sure we can feed ourselves. So why is dairy farming worth propping up? Simple. We can't eat grass! All those fields we see filled with cows are not capable of growing wheat or barley. If they were capable of growing wheat or barley that is exactly what the farmer would be growing. Why lose money on milk when you can make a fat living growing cereal? Dairy farmers turn grass we can't eat into milk, cream, butter and cheese we can eat. One day when the world turns dark again these are the people we will look to to keep our bodies and souls together. How crazy to say banks are too big to fail whilst letting those who put our food on the table go to the wall.

Monday, July 16, 2012

You're bang right Rio - It's Football, Racism and Twisted Knickers

A decade ago I wrote my second of fifteen books. It was called the ‘Drums of Anfield’ and much to my surprise it wound up being discussed in the national press and I found myself in the Radio 5 Live studio in London. Why? Was I famous? No. Did the book win a bunch awards? No. was it a multi national best seller? Absolutely no.

Basically the media got interested because it was a kids book that revolved around racism in football. And as we have all seen, there are few things to stir the media blood like racism in football.

Why did I write it? You probably see me as some sort of sandal wearing holier than thou type. Not really. My partner of 26 years is Black British and we have two mixed race boys, both of whom are Liverpool to their toenails and have been since the age of four. Had they chosen the dark side and followed the Mancs, a call would have been made to the Social and they would have wound up in the care system. So much for the sandals.

We had just moved to Scotland and it was pretty clear that both Dyonne and Courtney would have a few years of always being the only brown boy in the class: never an easy thing. They were bound to get called names and the book was my idea of trying to make the point that belting some clown who called them a nigger would land them in more bother than the caveman they thumped. I may not be an open toed sandals man, but I do have a poster of Martin Luther King on the wall.

At first I never had any thoughts of publishing the book – It was basically a bedtime story. Anyway, one thing led to another and after a few months I was chatting with about the book with Five Live’s Ian Payne and a few million lads in their vans – this was the pre TalkSport world.

The book took me to some pretty interesting times and places. A launch at Anfield was attended by Ian Callaghan who had always been my all time idol and meeting him made it worth while being a writer. Liverpool FC commissioned one of the Brookside screenwriters to write a drama version of the story which was performed to 4000 school kids under the Centenary Stand at Anfield.

More unexpected was a call I received on day from an outfit in Glasgow called ‘Sense over Sectarianism. This was a real New Labour classic made up Rangers FC, Celtic FC, The Catholic Church, The Church of Scotland and Glasgow City Council. Could I rewrite the story for them? Set it in Glasgow and talk about sectarianism? They wanted 10,000 copies to dish out to every high school pupil in Glasgow. There wasn’t any cash in it. There never is. But there was a racing certainty of a ticket to an Old Firm game and that was a thing I had always aspired to.

So I did the research and wrote the book and duly attended a Celtic Rangers match at Ibrox. Never again! The levels of mouth frothing sectarianism were up there with anything the Bosnian Serbs could conjure up.

And all of a sudden I was to attend a launch event at Hampden Park. And the media were invited. And a room full of them turned out. Celtic fielded a player. Rangers sent two. And the Lord Mayor turned up. There was just one hitch – none of them were willing to talk about sectarianism. Which basically left a Koppite from Lancashire to field a bunch of aggressive questions from the Scottish redtops. Cheers for that.

The whole thing was box ticking. Are you doing anything to address sectarianism? Course we are! We commissioned a book for schools. We’re doing our bit. But they wouldn’t talk about it.

And so to Ibrox. When the teams walked onto the pitch they played Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the best’ at full volume. Nothing wrong in that, surely? Well maybe there was. 45,000 Rangers fans sang along with frantic gusto – ‘Fuck the Pope and the IRA!!!’ Maybe the good and the great failed to hear that bit? Or maybe they just liked the income from selling season tickets to head banging nutters from East Belfast.

The whole thing made me cynical about political correctness, lip service and the general bullshit of the football authorities.

That cynicism has hardly been eased by the events of the last few months. Maybe you can make some sense of these three incidents because I certainly can’t.

Louis Suarez and Patrice Evra have a spat and Suarez calls Evra ‘Black man’ in Spanish. Evra is livid and reports it. The press goes ballistic and the FA fine Suarez £40,000 and ban him for eight games. The Liverpool fans get all paranoid and seem convinced the world is against them and sadly King Kenny agrees. Things are a bit heated and febrile at Anfield for a Friday night FA Cup tie against Oldham. All of a sudden it is clear that the Oldham left back – a young black lad – is in tears as a result of something that has been said from the Kop. Stevie Gerrard does his best to console him. I feel sick and ashamed and gutted for the lad. His dream night has just been nightmared.

Over the next days the caveman is traced and duly arrested. He attends court and is charged with using racist language. He pleads not guilty. Your honour! I never called him a ‘Black Cunt’ – I called him a ‘Manc Cunt’. Witnesses were called and they back up the story. The caveman’s geography obviously draws on the fact that Oldham is a part of Greater Manchester which is enough to warrant a scream of ‘Manc Cunt’. Well the Magistrate is happy enough with this. ‘Black Cunt’ would have been beyond the pale but ‘Manc Cunt’ is deemed to be fine and dandy and the caveman walks free.


And then of course the TV cameras pick up England’s gallant leader John Terry calling Anton Ferdinand a ‘Fucking Black Cunt’. Now Anton plays for QPR and QPR is a hell of a drive from Greater Manchester so there seems little chance that Captain Fantastic can claim to have called his fellow pro a ‘Funcking Manc Cunt’ even though his brother does indeed play for the Mancs. Unlike the Suarez affair, this one becomes a police matter and the FA back off. It can’t go to court because the Chelsea players are far too busy, unlike the rest of the public who are threatened with charges of contempt if we miss a court hearing and most of us tend to work ten hours a day rather than just a morning’s training but what the hell – we’re not celebs so we don’t count. In the end the old American adage of the justice system was proved correct – ‘Guilty until proven rich’. Terry’s Fancy Dan legal team concoct a tale that big John has merely repeated words spoken to him by Anton even though Anton denies it and nobody heard or lip read him. Never mind such detail. Somehow Terry’s brief seems to have managed to hypnotise the magistrate.

Not guilty.

It’s good that things are now all cleared up and we know how to behave properly.

”Daddy, is it OK to call that black man ‘A Manc Cunt’?”

“Of course son. On you go.”

“Daddy. Is it OK to call that black man a ‘Fucking Black Cunt’?”

“Of course son. On you go.”

“Daddy. Is it OK to call that black man a ‘Black Man’?”

“Good God son! Where are you getting that kind of filth from! Your grounded for ever and ever and you’re eating broccoli for tea for the next three years you filthy little racist pig!”

Which actually makes the whole thing a tad uncomfortable. Let’s just assume for a moment that the much maligned Senor Suarez was actually telling the truth. You see, up here in Bonnie Scotland, if you are tall someone will often as not greet you with the words “Y’alright there big man”. If you’re small, they may well say “Y’alright there wee man.” Neither of these things are a problem. Why would they be? After all, there is nothing wrong with being either tall or short. It would be a different story if someone said “Y’alright Fat Man.” Or ‘bald’ man. Or ‘spotty face’ man. Or ‘Unsightly birthmark on your face’ man. All of these are a problem because they highlight something the person isn’t happy about. So have the good folk of Uruguay got it so very wrong when they say ‘Y’alright Black man”? The whole point of not being racist is being 100% certain that there is nothing wrong with being black. And if there is indeed nothing wrong with being black, then it stands to reason that there is little wrong with calling a black man and ‘black man’.  


How very lucky we are to have wise old Magistrates to unravel these tricky issues for us and make everything clear.

So Rio, you’re bang right mate. We’re all getting our knickers in a twist.   

Friday, July 13, 2012

Precious little Justice. And precious little peace. And thanks Steve.

I reckon I am one of the many millions. We pay our taxes. We obey the rules. We try to do the right thing. In some ways we never really get the chance to put ourselves to the test. The only option I get is to have a third of my income deducted at source in the form of PAYE. Nobody has ever given me the option of paying 1% instead by hopping on board some celeb friendly avoidance scheme. Would I take it? I like to think not. Most of us no doubt think the same. Would we do a Jimmy Carr if we were on three million a year? Would we do a Philip Green if we cleared a billion? Big questions that are hard to answer

I have only looked anarchy in the face a couple of times and it wasn’t a pretty site. Anarchy is a world where the semi psychotic six foot two skinhead suddenly rules the roost. If he wants your bag of shopping, he’ll take your bag of shopping and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it. So rules are good. Rules keep the six foot two skinhead in his kennel. Rules are worth sticking to and the vast majority do exactly that.

I guess most of us who spend our lives doing the right thing feel that we maybe deserve a bit of credit if and when we take a baby step over the line: the moments when we suddenly find ourselves on the wrong side of the criminal justice system. It’s usually an accident and it usually involves a motor vehicle.

And so it was with me.

I changed my car in January. A £250 red Volvo Estate was cashed in for a £250 maroon Volvo Estate. MOT for 12 months and tax disc in the windscreen. Job done. The choice of car says a great deal about why as an author I am well off the radar of the 1% tax dodge boys! Grisham I ain’t.

Anyway, one Sunday morning a week after the car switch I parked up by the Agency to pick up some empty egg trays en route to feeding our 200 chickens. Note yet another element of the sheer undiluted glamour of an author’s life. Returning to my can I found two cops waiting for me.

What’s the problem lads?

No insurance sunshine.

Shit. Bugger. Bollocks. Bastard.

Yup. I forgot to call the insurance company to tell them I had cashed in a red Volvo estate for a maroon Volvo estate. Not exactly the Kray twins or Pablo Escobar, but all the same I had taken myself over the line to the wrong side of the law.

I explained of course. Look lads, I can make a call to Swinton here and now and get it switched.

Sorry sir, no can do. Of course they couldn’t. They needed something in the book to take to the desk sergeant at the end of a slow Sunday morning shift.

Into the squad car and on with the paperwork.

Any points on your licence sir?


Ahh. Sorry about that. This will mean you will go up to twelve points and face a ban. We wouldn’t have done it if we had known you had six points….. too late now I’m afraid. Already started the paperwork you see…...

Already started the paperwork. The grey inevitability of beaurocracy.  We’re so sorry Mr Cohen, if we had know before that you have won and Iron Cross at Verdun we might have been able to…. but we’ve started the paperwork….. sorry about that. Where is the train headed? I small place called Buchenwald I believe. Just up in the hills above Magdeburg…..

I am afraid we will have to arrange for your car to be towed Mr Frankland.

But I can call Carol and she can come and pick it up. Her insurance cover her to drive any vehicle.

Sorry sir. The paperwork….

If we had only realised that it was Mr Anton Pavlov who had missed his production targets rather than Sergei Pavlov then we might have been able to ….. but it is the paperwork you see comrade……. Comrade Stalin is very particular about the paperwork………. The train? Oh, somewhere in Kolyma I believe. You best dress up warm…

So they got the maroon Volvo Estate towed. Half a mile. A hundred and twenty quid’s worth. Thanks lads.

But it really wasn’t too much of a problem they assured me. I could appeal exceptional hardship. I’d get a fine sure enough. But not a ban. No chance.

And so came the first day in court. A lawyer would come in at £350 and my kind of author can’t run to £350. I would have to do the Rumpole bit on my own. I was lucky. A lawyer took some time out to fill me in on the procedure of doing a DIY Rumpole in the courts of Dumfries and Galloway.

And the news wasn’t good.

Exceptional hardship hearings are all sent to the JP’s court in Annan. And the JP’s of Annan have little time for exceptional hardship. They like throwing the book. So it will have to be something good. Really good.

Was I going to suffer exceptional personal hardship? Not really. Just huge inconvenience and a load of walking.

But the rules say ‘E£xceptional Hardship for yourself or others.’

So work was another issue. In my line of work I get calls which require immediate action. Calls when some of the veterans we support have reached the place of ultimate darkness where life is no longer worth a candle. Just ringing to say goodbye Mark. Thanks for all you help but….

And then I have maybe half an hour to jump into the £250 maroon Volvo and high tail it to wherever they may be to hopefully talk them down. Sure it doesn’t happen a lot. But it happens.

And the helpful lawyer told me that this was the story I would need to tell to the JP’s of Annan. But it would need more than my Rumpole efforts. It would need witnesses. Someone to corroborate the tale. My fifty years of abiding by the rules and trying to do the right thing would count for nothing in front of the JPs of Annan.

So I called Steve. Steve was a Scots Guardsman in another lifetime and he went to the dark places. Trenches ripped from wet fields by JCB’s belching thick diesel fumes. Crows in dark ranks of pine trees. Hard faced men in balaclavas and cheap anoraks laughing and crashing cheap unfiltered cigarettes. And bodies and bodies and bodies… The dark places. Night after night after night.

I asked Steve if he would be willing to help me out. To tell the court how the memories of the dark places made him harm himself.

And Steve said yes. Course he would.

I hated doing it. Outside the court I gave him a list of the questions I would ask to persuade the JP’s of Annan that sometimes my job became a matter of life and death. And the difference between life and death would probably be a £250 maroon Volvo. No problem Mark. Ask what you like. I just want to help.

We sat for two hours whilst bored lawyers dealt with about fifty cases. There wasn’t a single outcome. Fifty cases adjourned or re-arranged. Then a break. Then a special reasons appeal which was grudgingly granted.

Then the Rumpole with the £250 maroon Volvo;

I said my bit. I told them about the work of First Base. I told them about the Vets we work with and the dark places. I told them about James who reached a place where he couldn’t do it any more. Any of it. At the age of 22 on a cold night in January a week before I parked a £250 maroon Volvo outside the Agency. A makeshift noose and no more nightly visits to the dark places.

Then I called my first witness. Archie. Councillor Archie Dryburgh. Ex Gordon Highlanders and now the region’s Veterans Champion. A man of office and reputation. A man to confirm that what I had told the JP’s of Annan was no more than the truth. Were they buying any of it? Inscrutable faces. It didn’t look promising.

Then I called Steve and felt about an inch tall doing it.

He stood all of his six foot two and straightened his Guardsman’s back.

How low do you get Steve?

Lower than low. As low as it is possible for a man to get.

And have you ever harmed yourself Steve?


And have you ever considered suicide Steve?

Back a little straighter. Twice. Once in Peterborough. Once in Newcastle. Both times the ambulance crew brought him back from the far side of the line.

Christ this was costing him.

I shouldn’t have done this.

I should have just taken the ban and lumped it.

He gave me a small nod. It’s OK. I’m fine.

Were you particularly low a few months ago Steve?


And did you call me Steve?

I did.

What was the reason for the call Steve?

I rang to say goodbye.

A call that had sent me flying over to Annan in a £250 Volvo.

And what would have happened if I hadn’t called round Steve?

I wouldn’t have been here today. No chance.

And if I had explained that I had no licence and had to send a volunteer instead would you have let them in?


Do you know any other veterans in Dumfries and Galloway who are in the same place as you?


The Procurator Fiscal had no questions for Steve. She looked down at her paperwork and seemed to be suddenly feeling the cold. A biting wind sliding through ranks of silent pine trees and a field with the angry brown scar of a recently excavated trench. And the smell of cheap tobacco. And the bite of hard brutish laughter and a coughing diesel engine. And bodies and bodies and bodies…….

The glimpse of a dark place for the JP’s Court in Annan.

A world far, far away. A world where there are no rules any more. A world where the weak are dispatched with a lump hammer crashed into the back of their heads. To save on the cost of bullets. Crows in the trees and humanity with its back turned. The bottomless hell of anarchy.

I thanked Steve and he took his place at the back of the court.

And I felt dirty and small and bad, bad, bad.

I summed up.

Exceptional hardship? Not for me but for Steve and all those like him. The ones we have sent to the dark places for the same pay as a traffic warden. Less than a bored cop on a slow Sunday morning.

Christ what had any of this got to do with forgetting to call Swinton bloody insurance to switch vehicle insurance?

The JP’s of Annan left the court to consult and minutes ticked by.

Fifteen long minutes.

And then they came back.

We have listened to the evidence you have presented Mr Frankland. And we agree there will be hardship if you lose your licence. But not exceptional hardship…

And I sense the anger rising in Steve.

I sense Carol quietly telling it’s OK. Really. It’s OK.

And that was that.

Six months and £200 to pay.

Out into the fresh air and a cigarette and Steve white faced with anger. And the JP’s of Annan emerged and headed over the road to a hotel for their lunch. And at that moment I couldn’t care less about the six months and £200 and the hoops I had been made to jump through for forgetting to make a lousy phone call. I hated them for what they had done to Steve. They had ignored him. Joined the long list of those who had let him down. Written him off. Discounted him.

Steve and all the others. The men and women who can find no way to rid themselves of their time in the dark places. The pine trees and the smoke hanging in the cold air and the bodies and the bodies and the bodies….

We shook hands and I thanked him. And Carol thanked him. And it wasn’t anything like enough. And he marched away with his Guardsman’s back as straight as ever.

It was the Justice of the Peace Court in Annan

A small room in great need of a makeover.

And there was precious little Justice.

And precious little peace.

Just a glimpse into the very darkest corners of our world.

And then a nice lunch.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Thanks to 'Cash for Kids' we can now feed the next 100 hungry families who come through the door

Kids going hungry have been playing pretty big in the news over the last week thanks to yet another in depth report into the country’s seemingly inevitable slide down the pan. I can’t remember the exact stat. It was scary. Stats are always scary these days. I suppose we should be thankful that the measure of hunger amongst British kids at the moment is a youngster showing up at school with no breakfast inside them and maybe no meal the night before either. I guess families would jump at that in the baked out dying fields of the Horn of Africa. Many Greek families would probably see this level of hunger as being not so bad really. Even the States are further down the road to the kind of pot bellied hunger we have always associated with the Third World. I podcasted a Radio 4 thing about American hunger a few months ago. They did an interview with some kids in a tough area who were pretty well subsisting on school food. One little girl of about six who had the saddest, quietest voice you have ever heard was asked how bad things were at home. At first she just couldn’t say it. Then she got it out. Almost inaudible. “My mummy ate a rat.”

“My mummy ate a rat.”

So, yeah. We’ve got a way to go yet.

We got some good news at First Base last week. An outfit called ‘Cash for Kids’ said yes to our request for funding for 100 emergency food parcels for families. It seems that the award will be timely. Every week we are seeing more and more families coming in who are in no position to buy any food. They come from the Social and Women’s Aid and Welfare Rights and Citizen’s Advice and almost inevitably they are horribly embarrassed that things have come to this.

The stories are seldom the same. Sometimes it is down to a late night escape from domestic abuse. Sometimes it is a lost job or a cut in hours. A mess up with benefits. A chop in tax credit. All sorts. And when a family of three or four come through the door with pockets as empty as a banker’s soul it needs rather more than one basic food parcel to keep them going for two or three days.

Well thanks to Cash for Kids we are now in a position to cover things for the next hundred families through the door.

Maybe it is worth listing what we can do with £1000 to help out a hundred families. We aim to put them in a place where they can feed up to four people for three days.  In some ways, some might be surprised at how far you can get with £13.34. Actually that isn’t quite right. Our family parcel includes three loaves of bread which we don’t have to pay for thanks to the generosity of Greggs the Bakers who donate us 50 loaves every week – an absolute complete and utter Godsend. Let’s call it £15 – a fiver a day.

Day 1

Breakfast                                 Cereal, Toast, Butter and Jam

Lunch                                      Beans on toast

Snack                                      Crisps + a banana

Dinner                                     Savoury Rice and Sweet and Sour sauce

                                                Strawberry Whip + tinned peaches

Before bed                              Biscuits + a drink (Tea or blackcurrant cordial)

Day 2

Breakfast                                 Cereal, Toast, Butter and Jam

Lunch                                      Hot dog sausages + Instant Mashed Potatoes

Snack                                      Jam sandwich

Dinner                                     Pasta + Bolognese sauce

                                                Rice Pudding

Before bed                              Biscuits + a drink (Tea or blackcurrant cordial)

Day 3

Breakfast                                 Cereal, Toast, Butter and Jam

Lunch                                      Tinned spaghetti on toast

Snack                                      Biscuits

Dinner                                     Pasta and Tinned Meatballs

                                                Sponge cake and Custard

Before bed                              Biscuits + a drink (Tea or blackcurrant cordial)

Not bad for a fiver a day. Well it is the best we can come up with. And this of course begs a few questions, many of which seem to be getting asked on a pretty regular basis on the phone in shows. Basically the big ask of the day is who can’t find a fiver a day? Is it the unemployed family of four who are on benefits? Probably not. Assuming they are in social housing they will be getting all the rent and rates covered by housing benefits. In terms of cash they will have somewhere in the region of £150 a week coming in. Not enough for a month in Barbados but enough to have £115 a week leftover for electric, clothes etc having spend a fiver a day on food. It seems that most of the families who lack even a fiver a day to pay for food tend to be working. They have Northern Rock 120% mortgages taken on a few years ago and equity that has gone negative. They have maxed up credit cards and debt collectors are on the phone all day, every day. The calculations they used to decide the mortgage was affordable have all gone wrong. The husband might have banked on a certain amount of overtime which has now disappeared. The wife might have budgeted for Tax Credits based on a certain number of hours a week of work which seemed a shoe in at the time but now have become a pipe dream. The electric and petrol bills have shot through the roof and the bank of mum and dad has run out of cash. All of which sends them through the doors of the Social or Welfare Rights or Citizens Advice in a state of shame and embarrassment. And then they come in to us.

Maybe yet again we are missing the real story. The very poorest among us seem to be the ones who have jobs which need cars and mortgages which seemed like a good idea at the time. The victims of Brown’s ‘No more boom and bust’ claptrap. They are ones who time has caught up with. Just like the whole country really. And will we be seeing more and more in the months and years to come? Oh yeah. Things at the moment have a horrible tip of the iceberg feel about them.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Maybe there's hope for Democracy yet.

Last night every news channel carried wall to wall coverage of 600 sixty grand a year elected members of Parliament behaving like a bunch of spoiled kids. Well nowt fresh there then. Déjà vu to the power ten. A gang of bankers commit fraud in a Bollinger swilling moral vacuum and all our great leaders can do is scream abuse at each other. The only one of them to emerge with any credit was the Speaker who achieved silence in the House with a bellowed ‘BE QUIET’ that would have done my old chemistry teacher proud. When you watch this desperately tawdry spectacle, it is hard to retain much affection for the democracy that millions of our guys fought tooth and nail for back in the forties.

Well, I’m going to have at passing on a tale that maybe just maybe might rekindle some of the old faith. A twitch upon the thread as Evelyn Waugh once said.

My man wasn’t in for a food parcel himself. He was with a pal. He was all red faced and clutching a can of Super Lager. Like most lads full of a few cans by one in the afternoon he spoke to me as if I was standing in Warsaw rather than at the other side of the counter.

Basically, my man wanted to talk books and he had read a couple of mine in the jail. He loved books. He swore down blind that he had often spent is last tenner on a book from Waterstones instead of buying more drink and drugs. And he more or less got his pal to sign an affidavit to confirm this statement. He went into great detail about how his new strategy for staying out of the slammer was to stay in his hostel room and read book after book. After book. After book. His logic seemed pretty sound on this point. If he was in his room reading then there was little to no chance that he would do anything that would land him back in jail. Fair enough.

But my man had a problem. By the time all deductions for fines and crisis loans were taken from his dole at the point of delivery, there was only enough left for three or four books a week. And that wasn’t enough.

And so we came to the very heart of the matter. Way back in 2001 he had racked up a £62 library fine and hadn’t ever been in a position to clear it down. How he yearned to be able to return to the library and it’s more or less limitless supply of books. And with such a limitless supply at his disposal he felt sure in his heart of hearts that he could stay a free man.

Maybe I am a bit cynical. In fact scrub that. I AM a bit cynical. So I did the maths. Were we to send my man away for another three months stretch at her Majesty’s pleasure it would set us all back about £15,000. On the other hand, if forgiving a £62 fine were to be the key to stopping that from happening, then from a financial point of view it seemed a no brainer. A £14938 win for the beleaguered tax payer. Anyway, I write books for Christ’s sake. Obviously I’m on the side of the man who yearns to read his way to prolonged freedom.

Leave it with me I promised. Let me make some calls. He shrugged and said thanks but there was no point me wasting my time. He assured me that the good folk of the local council considered him to be no more than a ‘worthless bit ae’ shite’.

Undeterred I made a call. I called the Provost, Councillor Jack Groom, a good man if ever there was one. I put my man’s case and Jack agreed it was a punt worth taking. E mail me the details said Jack.

I e mailed the details.

And Jack forwarded them on the gaffer at the libraries dept. And he called them.

And they e mailed me saying OK, why not? They promised to call my man and allow him back into the tent on the basis that he could only have one book at the time.

I rang him up and it was one of those moments when the job actually seemed worth doing. You would have thought he had won the pools. Christ, if only a few more harboured such enthusiasm for the written word!

The moral of this little tale? Simple. Democracy CAN work. All elected officials are NOT like the rabble in the House of Commons. Many are thoroughly decent men and women who put themselves forward to try and do the right thing.

And Jack did. He took time to look out for the guy who was struggling and deserved a break. Which in the end is what all those lads in the forties fought and died for.

Hitler wouldn’t have waived the fine. He’d have sent my man to Dachau. And then he would have got his brown shirted thugs to burn all his books.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

'The horror, the horror'

So, OK, this all rumour and hearsay stuff.  But nine years of First Base tends to suggest that rumour and hearsay tends to be more or less right. There are no names here anyway. The story. The victim is a bit of a lad. Early twenties. A ladies man they say. Out and about and strutting his stuff. He chats away with a young lass and in all likelihood they have both had a few. She sits on his knee. Shock, horror. She sits on his knee! In public!

Stage left: Enter the boyfriend. I don’t know if he saw his woman sitting on another man’s knee or if he just heard about it. Whatever. What is for sure is that he was very seriously pissed off. His pride was dented. His rep was suddenly under threat.

Viewed from afar, it is such a completely trivial event. This was absolutely not a full on passionate affair of the heart. It was sitting on a knee.

So what does the boyfriend do? He plots and schemes his revenge. For in his mind there must be a revenge. That is the tit for tat world he has decided to live in. When you are that focused on being a big fish in a little pond you can’t have your bird sitting on someone else’s knee.

What comes next is utter over kill.

Utter horror.

The boyfriend recruited accomplices for his revenge plot. A female friend is dispatched to visit the victim and tell there is a great party going down. Unmissable. And she’s got a taxi. And she can pick him up. And he’s got to go cos it’s going to be absolutely brilliant. And the victim takes the bait.

A taxi calls and he gets in. A short ride across town. There is probably some small talk. Soaps and celebs and who’s up to what.

Destination reached. A block of social housing. And a flat tenanted by another accomplice. The venue of the supposed unmissable party.

But there was no party.

Only the waiting boyfriend with a bottle in his hand all broken and ready for action. The door opens and the boyfriend leaps out. There is no hesitation.

He buries the bottle deep in the victim’s neck.

Just like that. No argument. No nothing.

Because the victim had sat on his bird’s knee. Because the victim had threatened his rep.

The blood is hosing out. On the floor. On the walls. On the windows. It seems like accomplice two objects to the carnage on the doorstep and so the victim is dragged down the stairs and out of the block and dumped on the pavement.

Like a sack of spuds.

Like refuse.

Like roadkill.

Then it is all police and ambulances and crime scene tape. Blue lights flashing through a curtain of summer drizzle.

The emergency services are as good and ever and the victim survives the night. He is going to make it.

Come Monday morning our lads from the Veterans Project are in the block carrying out the cleaning contract. The residents are rightly pissed off. The bio hazard guys who had been tasked to clean up the blood have not covered themselves in glory. The floor is pretty well mopped but the walls and windows still bear witness. And the crime scene tape is still flapping in the breeze.

And in my mind is Brando’s contorted face breathing his last at the end of ‘Apocolypse Now’.

‘The horror, the horror.”

Not Cambodia. Just another rainy night on the streets of Dumfries. Because a lass sat on a lad’s knee.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Norman Tebbit would have loved this guy, so why is he getting shafted!

They came in yesterday. A young couple. Twentyish I suppose. He was studiously polite. She hung back a little, doting on a smiling infant son who was obviously their pride and joy. He explained that he had been in for a food parcel before. A while ago. His head dropped a tad as he fronted up the fact that it had been his probation officer who had sent him in. No doubt that had been his wild time. Some idiocy fuelled by valium, Buckfast and complete and utter boredom. Then his head came back up. Things are different now. Changed. He explained that all that stuff was done and dusted whilst sneaking a glance at his smiling offspring. He told a familiar tale of umpteen job applications and no replies. Couldn’t care less shrugs from the staff of JobCentre Plus. So what do you expect? You’re young, you’ve no experience, you’ve got a criminal record. How dare you harbour hope? Just learn to live on fifty quid a week and count yourself lucky. That all too familiar take of the doomed youth of the disintegrating West.

But my man had decided he wasn’t going to take it lying down. If nobody would give him the chance of a job he would create a job on his own. So he knocked the door of every takeaway in the town and punted his services as a menu delivery guy. And he got two of them to say yes. I have no idea what he charged but who cares really. He knocked doors and got two orders in the book. I couldn’t help but cast the mind back to the gnarled face of Norman Tebbit all those years ago extolling the virtue of recession doomed youth getting on their bikes and finding a job. Norman, you really would have loved this lad. He was your kind of people.

And there’s more. He was going to get paid cash once he had letterboxed the menus. And he knew that that he would be breaking the rules if he continued to sign on. And he had decided that his days of rule breaking were all done. So he had marched into the JobCentre Plus and signed himself off. He walked away from his £50 a week to follow his new course. Obviously he asked if there was any financial help on the table but of course there wasn’t. Had he been a bit older, over 25 I think, them an appreciative state would have replaced his dole money with some new enterprise money for six months. But apparently anyone who is young does not deserve any help in setting up on their own. Odd really when we are so keen of offer unsecured loans running to tens of thousands at subsidised rates to any brainy kid wanting to study ancient Greece for three years at university.

So my man basically had a problem. A cash flow problem. The menus had been delivered but payment wasn’t due for a week and he had walked away from his dole. Which left him with a partner and a baby to feed and no money whatsoever to make that happen. He told me it had been a long day. They had toured every agency in town looking for help and they had found none. And finally he had remembered the place his probation officer had once sent in for a food parcel. And here he was. Here they all were. Nervous, ultra polite, a little bemused. They couldn’t quite understand why everyone had lost all interest in them now that they were trying to do the right thing. We were able to give them bags of food enough to get through the week and I did my best to be encouraging. Stick at it. Acorns and oak trees and all that. But why oh why are we so hell bent of crushing every ounce of spirit out of this horribly unlucky generation. Even you might agree with that Mr Tebbit.