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 22, 2012

Hallelujah! We live in a time of miracles when millions who are sick are suddenly cured.

We are truly blessed to live in such a time of miracles. Not since Jesus did his stuff in the rocky hills and valleys of Galilee have so many sick people miraculously become well. Are we witnessing the hand of God? Are stone statues about to shed tears? Is the Second Coming nigh? Anyone running a B&B in the town of Lourdes must be frantically revising their sales forecasts down and trying to work out what the hell they are going to say to their bank manager. After all, who in their right mind would want to shell out for an all-in package to Lourdes to get well when all you have to do is come to the UK and apply for sick pay. You fill in the form, attend and medical and lo and behold, you are suddenly as fit as a flea. Surely we are missing out on a huge opportunity to boost growth here. Our sudden ability to provide a miracle cure to people who have been too sick to work for ten years or more is absolutely groundbreaking. Why are we not hitting the rest of the world with a blanket advertising campaign?

Cue serious anchor man voice. Probably American.

“Are you sick? I mean really sick? And have you been sick for years? Well help is at hand. Come to the UK and get well soon. Leprosy? Aids? Ebola Virus? No matter. We Brits can fix it all. Just one medical and you can get back to work. Come to Britain where we fix more people than Jesus!”

What a shot in the economic arm. We can pack out every hotel from Paisley to Penzance. Book a flight. Catch a show. Try some fish and chips. Attend a medical and poof! …. you’re well again!

What is hard to understand is why all these people who have been too sick to work for years and years and years are not thronging the streets and jumping for joy and punching the air and skipping about like spring lambs. I mean, come on. If you had been deemed too sick to work for fifteen years and condemned to a life of daytime TV, wouldn’t you be pretty damned cock-a-hoop if you heard that all is now well and highly trained medical staff have deemed you to be fit as a flea?

So what is the problem with these silly people? Every day they come mooching into First Base with long faces and tales of woe. The tale is usually the same. They have been signed off sick for ten years and more. They have depression. Or anxiety. Or a drink problem. Or a bad back. Or all of the above. And their GP has always agreed that work is out of the question and signed on the dotted line to confirm it. And then out come a clear blue sky cometh a letter from the DWP in London ordering them to a medical to be carried out by highly trained folks from France. And the results of the medical never vary. Sick people are miraculously cured. Wonderful. No more depression or anxiety or drink problem. All gone. All better. However, instead of being elated at their new found good health, the miraculously cured are instead morose and bitter and angry. How dare they! They gave me no points! They are saying that I am well!

Then what happens? Again, the story tends to be the same. The sick person puts in an appeal against the decision they are in fact not sick after all. Their benefits get cut whilst they count down the days to their appeal hearing. The reduced level of benefits tends to cover power but not food and so a support agency sends them along to us for a food parcel. Not many win their appeals to become sick again. Most in the know reckon a figure of about 20% is there or there abouts. And then? Another appeal. And another. One of our guys is onto his fifth. Every time his doctor is adamant that he is sick whilst the miracle cure men from France say he is in the pink.

The bottom line? To be honest the vast majority of the folk we see are more than capable of working and have been so for years. They have had a drug problem and been put on methadone. Those tasked with supporting them know full well that if they go onto Jobseekers Allowance they will miss appointments and be suspended which will mean no housing benefits and subsequent eviction. Much better to tell them to spin a line about being depressed and anxious which means they only need to get their act together to sign on the dotted line once a month. They do not have to go through the bothersome routine of applying for jobs and filling in progress forms. And best of all, they get another £30 a week or so which is incentive enough for them to make that all important monthly appointment to sign on the dotted line. Other than that, they can crack on and top up their daily dose of methadone with whatever cocktail of cider, supa-lager and valium they can afford.

We have had endless arguments with support workers about this nonsense for years. A lad goes to jail for three months, gets clean, fills out on three square meals a day and emerges clear headed and motivated to change his life around. What is the absolute best thing to make this happen? A job! A chance to make a living, meet new pals whose lives don’t revolve around the next score and a chance to regain some self respect. Instead their support workers get them signed off sick and tell them that it is for the best. And when this goes on for years and years, not surprisingly people become quite convinced that they are indeed sick and incapable of ever completing a day’s work. The prospect of not being sick is terrifying. They become hyper protective of their benefits and prescriptions. Mentally they become hard wired to feel sick, for being seen to be well is a nightmare. And if you concentrate hard enough on feeling sick, I guess you will indeed feel sick.

Now everyone is in a lather with the Government about this. We are hearing all the stuff about wicked, heartless Etonian bastards whose big dream in life is to spit roast the babies of the poor and turn them into pate. Surely the real blame lies with governments of all colours going back thirty years and more. In order to pretend they were doing a tip top job, they needed to boast about how far unemployment had fallen. So they took unemployed people, told them they were sick, bribed them with an extra £30 a week and duly signed them off. Hunky bloody dory.

Had this new miracle cure process been carried out back in 2000 when things were not so bad, things could have been very different. The French miracle workers could have told people that they were not sick after all. The newly cured would have gone onto Jobseekers, had to go through the routine of looking for work, and in most cases they would have got an actual job. Because back in 2000 there were lots of actual jobs for them to get. But instead, for the sake of lying at election time, the Government of the day preferred to keep people sick and it didn’t matter anyway because the City of London was coughing up more than enough tax to pay all the bills.

So what happened? A million East Europeans in the very rudest of health came over and filled all the jobs. Well best of luck to them, but those vacancies should never have been there for them to fill. Now there are no vacancies and the sick of 2000 have been convincing themselves of their own sickness for thirteen long years. Can they compete in the work place with some highly motivated and well educated 19 year old from Poznan? Can they hell.

What next? Well many we see will indeed cock it up once they are expected to meet the rigorous routine of the Job Centre Plus and more and more will be suspended from all benefits. And they will get evicted. And for a while we will all stump up £30 a day to keep them in homeless hostels until the Government decides it can’t afford that either. Then it will be cardboard boxes under bridges and jail when they get desperate.

You know what, when Jesus healed the poor things seemed to work out better.   


Friday, November 16, 2012

Say it ain't so, Joe

‘They tell us that our leader has played his trump card,
He doesn’t know how to go on.
We’re clinging to his charm and determined smile
But the good old days have done…’
Murray Head, ‘Say it ain’t so.’

These lyrics pretty well sum up how things have felt at First base over the last couple of weeks. We open the front door and tales of misery walk in and time after time I get that ‘Say it ain’t so’ feeling. Anyone who has read my blogs will be more than aware that I am hardly the greatest of patriots. However I still do retain a core belief that there is a line we British have never really crossed. Of course we have our share of corruption and dark deeds. The way the City of London will launder money for the very worst of humankind is a national disgrace. The way we offer up multi million pound mansions in Belgravia to any tin pot gangster or torturer lucky enough to have stashed a few million away in the gilded towers of Canary Wharf shows how very far we have fallen. The expenses scandal, Murdoch, BAE Systems, Iraq, Leveson, the BBC. Corruption and cover up and feathered nests.

Despite all this I hang on to a hope that all of this is down to immoral, greedy individuals on the take. Every society has them and we seem to have always had more from our fair share all the way from Sir Walter Raleigh to Sir Philip Green. Some call them buccaneers. Some call them chancers. Some call them out and out crooks. So long as you make a big enough pile, you get knighted and deemed a national treasure. Let’s face it, a small Island like ours doesn’t just happen to get the biggest empire the world has ever seen without playing fast and loose.

And yet through all the rape, pillage and plunder we managed to avoid ever going down the Robespierre, Hitler, Stalin route. Each century saw new checks and balances and slowly but surely we managed to learn how to behave better. We could easily have a done a deal back in 1940. Hitler always had a soft spot for us. He was more than happy for us to keep and expand our Empire so long as we let him have Europe to himself. If we had followed the money, the choice would have been a no brainer. Thankfully we didn’t. Thankfully we had a stubborn old bugger at the helm who saw Hitler for the arsehole he was and told him to stick his offer where the sun doesn’t shine.

Would we do the same now? I really would like to think so, but it is hard to be confident. The sense of basic honour and decency that once make us take a deep, collective breath and take on the Nazis seems to have evaporated. The way we are behaving now exhibits barely a trace of honesty, honour or decency.

The ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe’ line goes way back before Murray Head claimed the words for his song. In 1919 ‘Shoeless Joe Jackson’ was a big baseball star. He was the classic poor boy made good. A Stevie Gerrard figure. His dad was a dirt poor sharecropper from North Carolina who upped sticks and moved the family to a mill town. Joe started work at six and put in 12 hour shifts collecting fluff off the factory floor to do his bit to put food on the table. At ten he caught measles and all but died. Before pulling through, he was paralysed for two months. He never had a day at school and never learned to read and write. But could he ever hit the ball out of the park. By 1919 he was big time and kids the length and breadth of America had his picture on their wall. Then scandal erupted. Several members of the Chicago White Sox were implicated in match fixing. Joe was one of them. He was arrested, charged, taken to court and found guilty. As he emerged from his trial a young fan ran forward, utterly distraught that his hero had been revealed as a common cheat. ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe!’. Joe had nothing to say. He just walked away into the rest of his life.

The way so many are being treated at the moment makes me feel like the kid outside the court. You know it is true but you don’t want it to be true. Surely this kind of thing cannot become the norm in Britain? Or can it?

A case study. Let’s call the guy in question Dave in honour of our leader. Dave is unemployed. He has been unemployed for a while. For years he worked the club doors, but things slipped on the back of a bad divorce. Working the doors is a pretty good way to collect up a few enemies. Grudges are held for a ridiculous amount of time. And in August one such grudge bearer picked up the phone to the Job Centre and told them that Dave had been working on the ‘Black’. He was duly summoned to attend and told that he was suspended from all benefits until further notice. He explained that the allegation was ridiculous. One the day in question he was just out of hospital with a broken arm in plaster. He got letters from his GP and A&E to back his story up. Not good enough he was told. The onus was on him to prove that he was categorically NOT working and proof of an arm in plaster didn’t cut it. He asked if they would tell him who had reported him. No they wouldn’t. He asked if they would tell him where he was supposed to have been working. No they wouldn’t. It was down to him. Absolute proof or nothing.

He had no proof. His days are split between wandering around town and watching daytime TV. The money stopped on 24 August. His power ran out a week later. No Agency in the town could do a thing about it. He lived off the Voluntary Sector including us. He walked the streets collecting fag ends out of ashtrays in outdoor smoking areas in a polythene bag. He called in to the Job Centre time and again and when he exhibited any anger at his situation they threw him out. Suspended Job Seekers triggered a similar suspension of Housing Benefit. Which meant that no rent was paid. Which meant arrears. Which meant his Social Housing Provider went to court and asked for an eviction notice. They changed the locks whilst he was out and about collecting up dockers. When he returned to his locked home he smashed a window to get back in. There will be a price to pay at some stage.

Finally the Job Centre have decided he has been punished enough. They say he will be re-instated next week. Does that mean they have decided there was actually no case to answer? No comment. Will his Housing benefit be back dated? No chance. Which means he now has a debt of £700 and a broken window. He will no doubt be evicted before Christmas and stuck into a Homeless Hostel. And do doubt he will be taken to court for criminal damage for the broken window. And he’ll get fined and if he cannot make the payments he’ll probably be sent to jail

All because someone with a grudge made a single anonymous phone call and told a single anonymous lie. It helped someone at the Job Centre to meet their weekly target of getting three clients off benefits.

Is it true? Christ, I hope not. But every day we hear similar stories and it is hard to believe that everyone is lying. This morning I will pass this on to Russell Brown our local MP. I will ask him if he might be willing to contact the Job Centre and ask for a clear list of reasons why people get suspended. Legal reasons. And once we have that list we will be able to advise people if they have a leg to stand on. Or not. And I really, really hope that this new rule of ‘Guilty until proven innocent’ is not in fact carved in stone. I really, really hope that it is the work of a few cavalier individuals looking to hit their targets and protect their jobs rather than actual written down policy. Because if it is indeed actual written down policy, then it is hard to accept. Britain isn’t supposed to be like this.

‘Say it ain’t so, Joe.’     



Monday, November 5, 2012

The Fascists are on the pavement and the the dogs are on the roof

Rooftop space is a big deal in Athens. And balconies. And there’s nothing special about that of course. The same thing goes in most countries where the summer months mean long hours of burning heat. A rooftop is a place to retreat to in the early evening with a long cold drink. A place to watch the sky turn all colours from burning blue to blood red to soft black. And course it is the place to catch the faintest of breezes after a day of pavement cracking heat.

Our place in Athens was perched high on a steep hill and the view from the roof was enough to take the breath away. The city spread out in all directions, a densely packed sprawl of shining white buildings which climbed up through the valleys of the surrounding hills. Stunning, spectacular, scenic; all those view describing words beginning with the letter ‘S’.

But Athens had one rooftop feature that was a first for us.


Lots and lots of dogs. The city is home to hundreds of thousands of them. Some are ultra pampered and the pet sections in the supermarkets are made up of many shelves. Others are of the mangy mutt variety; the skinny strays who compete with the African refugees for anything edible in the over flowing bins. With so many dogs in such a tightly packed space the pavements offer a constant challenge. If you walk the cracked Athenian sidewalks with your head held high your shoes will be in a dire state after fifty yards.

The rooftop dogs spend their days lazily prowling their space. They take an occasional slurp of water from a silver dish. Sometimes they crash out in a shadow. Other times they retire into their rooftop kennel for a more serious kip. Every now and then they will exchange barked conversations with fellow rooftop dogs and from time to time these exchanges hit an enthusiastic pitch and the barking spreads across the neighbourhood.

One day I was sitting out reading and the sky started to turn angry. White clouds became grey clouds became black clouds. All of a sudden the mountains on the horizon were no longer there and slowly but surely the outer neighbourhoods were swallowed by the dark clouds.

Fierce forks of lightening slammed down on the suburbs in much the same vindictive way that Hitler’s Stukkas had once upon a time softened up the city for the jack booted entry of the strutting ranks of the Wehrmacht.

Anyone not watching the scene would have soon been alerted as the rooftop dogs started to howl at the approaching storm. And as the storm drew nearer, the dogs relayed the message with doleful howls. If you were getting ready to head out and your heard those howls you would be fool to leave your coat on the hook by the door.

Many in Athens are convinced that there is another storm on the way and they are trying to howl out a warning. It is a storm that the city has known several times in the past. Way back when in the days of togas and philosophy and stabbing spears, the government took a lurch to the right and cracked down on new liberal ideas. Socrates was deemed to be the problem and he decided to opt for suicide rather than execution. In the forties Greece was part of a big European club of countries who had Fascism pushed down their throats by the Nazi jackboot. The cancer returned in 1967 when the generals seized power and clamped down for seven years.

Now whenever you fall into a conversation with an Athenian is seems that there is an inevitability about the course that it will take. This isn’t a place where a chat tends to end in football. Instead they say that they have that Germany in the early thirties feeling. And to be honest history makes it easy to see why. Unemployment is over 25% in general and north of 70% for young people. Every week sees another 1000 join the list. Dole has been cut and it only lasts for a year. Then nothing. Nada. Zip. And there are not many who think there is a cat in hell’s chance of finding a job in a year. The shops are closing down one by one and people with rusting shopping trolleys wander the streets and root through bins. Anyone with any money is salting it out of the country in case it should be rendered worthless by a forced return to the Drachma. The super rich are getting out of Dodge as fast as they can and doing their bit to drive up the price of property in Mayfair and Belgravia.

Most consider the Government to be complete joke and it isn’t hard to see why. It is a sickly coalition riddled with corruption that in every way apes the bickering Parliaments of Weimar Germany that Hitler was able to shut down with such arrogant ease.

The state is withering on the vine. We visited a magnificent emergency food project where a bunch of volunteers were by hook or by crook managing to feed a hundred and fifty people a day. One of the volunteers had once upon a time been seconded to the project by the Health Board. Then they just stopped paying her. No letters. No redundancy. No appointment with a sombre line manager. Just no pay at the end of the month with no explanation. She still turns out twice a week as a volunteer. Her brother had been a big success in the boom years. He ran a hip club and drove a Merc. It’s all gone now and he lives of his mum’s pension: a pension that gets cut by 20% every three months of so.

The country is held together by strings and one by one they are fraying and snapping. The rich are leaving, the middle classes are being eroded and the poor are just plain screwed.

So, yeah. It has that last days of the Weimar Republic feel to it. The opinion polls show that with every passing week public support for the Golden Dawn party eases up and up. Golden Dawn. How quintessentially fascist are those two words! They put you in mind of those heroic posters that Hitler was so fond of. You know the kind of thing. Heroic looking blond men and women with determined faces and bulging, bronzed muscles all eager and ready to gather in the harvest and breed kids for the Fatherland.

Golden Dawn are up to 14% in the polls now and their message is hardly subtle. Things are crap and it’s all down to the immigrants. They don’t bother trying to put on any kind of gloss of respectability. They just say it like it is. Most wannabe Fascists in modern Europe at least make an effort to pretend that they are vaguely moderate in their hate. Marine Le Pen in France played the power dressed lawyer act and it was convincing enough to get her over 20% in the Presidential election. Even our own beloved BNP do all they can to claim they are more reasonable than the press tries to pretend.

Golden Dawn have no time for such subtlety. They want mine fields along the border with Turkey to blow up illegals before they get the chance to reach Greek soil. They advocate sticking every one of the millions of refugees on planes and flying them back to whence they came. And if starvation, torture and death await them in their homeland, then so be it.

If you want the services of a Golden Dawn stormtrooper for what ever reason, you can hire him in for 1.80 Euros an hour. He’ll no doubt get more than that. The party makes up the balance from their war chest. Who fills the war chest? Who knows, but it isn’t all that hard to guess. Many of those who filled their boots during their good times are no doubt a tad twitchy about things at the moment. If you have a million pound house up a leafy cul de sac and you haven’t paid a penny of tax for years, you are probably feeling a little vulnerable at the moment. It is a time when many in high tax dodging places probably feel the need for friends in low places. A nice cheque to the good old boys at Golden Dawn gets you a few goons at the front gate at 1.80 Euros an hour. It must be tempting to many who have happily sucked the country dry over the last few years.

History tells us that Fascism thrives when the State has all but given up the ghost. Almost everyone we met told us that there is no Government any more. There is a big fat vacuum that offers a perfect breeding ground for the headbangers of the right. What is left of the State seems to have little appetite to take them on. In the last elections Golden Dawn polled at its strongest in the areas immediately around major police stations. Nothing new there then. Instead of taking on the Fascists, what is left of the State seems to be using its energy to hammer down on anyone being too loud in their criticism of the austerity measures. Two years ago, before she became head of the IMF, Christine Legarde sent the Greek Government a list of 2000 citizens who had cash stashed away in a Zurich bank. She suggested they might look into the list and send out a few tax demands. Successive ministers managed to mislay and forget the list until a freelance journalist who has recently set up his own magazine decided to publish. My goodness me that got the engine of the State running at full revs. He was arrested and charged in days and spent a weekend in custody. In the end the charges were so laughable that they were thrown out, but the whole dismal episode showed where the government’s loyalties lay. Who was on the list? The usual suspects – politicians, big businessmen and gangsters. Oh, and their wives.

Twitter worked at its absolute best for us whilst we were in Athens. I tweeted an activist and freelancer who is at the forefront of the anti austerity campaign. I asked if we might meet up to find out what is happening and to get an intro to a food project. A reply fizzed in straight away. Sure. No problem. There would have been no way of making such a meet happen a few years ago. No wonder Fascists and dictators hate Twitter with such a visceral passion.

So we met and she proved to be a very impressive individual, if a little shaken. Golden Dawn ring her regularly to threaten all sorts of nasty stuff: as often as not it is her mum who picks up the phone. The day we met, she told of how as she was writing an e mail that afternoon, the lines on the computer disappeared as fast as she could type them. No matter how she tried, she could not seem to register as a follower of my Twitter site. She wondered if I would be flagged up on any shared MI5 lists? God knows. Probably. To cap it all her mobile phone was behaving in a distinctly peculiar fashion.

So there it was. A story that would seem so familiar to any well meaning liberal who tried to stem the Nazi Behemoth back in the late 20’s and early 30’s. They failed of course, and those who had spoken out against the brownshirts got beaten to a pulp in Buchenwald and Dachau. That is when you know a real storm is a coming. It is when the State, the gangsters, big business and the pavement Fascists start to work together. Try to shine a light on it, and you get locked up at best and beaten black and blue at worst.

We like to think it could never happen again. Maybe it can’t. Maybe it won’t. But when you hear those rooftop dogs start to howl, it is worth looking out of the window to see if a storm is on the way.

And they are howling right now.