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.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The banality of evil is here and it is now

Sometimes a day in the First Base Agency can feel long. Yesterday was like that. One after another they came and went. The unnoticed and unremarkable victims of the nasty, penny pinching changes that are tipping the lives of hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens on their heads. It is hard not to feel helpless and sick to the stomach. It is hard sometimes not to feel like chucking it all in a doing something else.

Like emigrating.

Instead I stand there behind the counter and listen to the stories of those who come in for a bag of food to feed themselves for three days. And sure, a bag of food is of great help to someone who hasn’t got any and doesn’t have the wherewithal to buy any. But it is the most temporary of fixes. In a way it reminds me of that scene in Apocalypse Now when the young guys on the patrol boat lose the plot and kill a bunch of civilians leaving only a fatally injured infant breathing. Then they frantically radio for medical help. Martin Sheen’s jaded voice over is all cynical logic.

“It's a way we had over here for living with ourselves. We cut 'em in half with a machine gun and give 'em a Band-Aid. It was a lie.”

I never thought I would see the day when people in Britain would be treated with such a casual cruelty. And of course this isn’t a drag them from their beds at three in the morning and beat the living daylights out them in a police cell cruelty. Thankfully that kind of stuff is still the way of the Iranian and Syrian governments rather than Westminster.

The new cruelty is more insidious. In a way it is more cowardly. Yesterday I was reminded of the extraordinary title of a book written by Hannah Arendt in 1963. The year before Hannah sat through every day of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Eichmann was one of Hitler’s beaurocrats. He was given the task of administrating the Final Solution to the problem of what to do with five million European Jews. He never switched the switch to fill a gas chamber with Zyclon B. Instead he organised the railway schedules and the architects’ plans for the most efficient crematoria and he scheduled the work rotas for the SS camp guards. After the war he assumed a false identity and escaped to Argentina where he melted himself into the non descript suburban life of lowly clerk.

After fifteen years the Israelis found him, kidnapped him and shipped him back to stand trial for his crimes against humanity. They duly found him guilty and executed him. They put his ashes on a plane and emptied them out over the Mediterranean: they didn’t want a trace of him to pollute and contaminate the soil of Israel.

As Hannah watched him in the dock she was stuck by his sheer ordinariness. There he is, at the top of the page. No trace of the so called Aryan superman is there? Just a beaurocrat who did as he was told.

To the letter.

With complete and utter efficiency.

And he displayed not a shred of remorse. After all, he had simply followed his orders. I haven’t read Hannah’s book, but I have always been chilled by the simple brilliance of the title.

‘The Banality of Evil.’

Yesterday I had a sense of something similar. People who were stunned at how brutally they are suddenly being treated. Why? They had never done anything wrong. They had never broken any laws. They had played by the rules and done their best. All they had done was to become sick or lose their jobs. And suddenly beaurocrats in far away Whitehall office were punishing them. Making their lives all but impossible to live. Of course these self same beaurocrats will never have to see the impact of what they are doing face to face, just like Eichmann never took a look around Auschwitz. They simply balance their books and keep their ledgers. And of course when asked, they will confirm that they are simply following orders. Cutting the deficit and the hell with the human costs. The hell with any semblance of fairness.

So how does it play out?

Here’s an example from yesterday. A case study. And in the end that is all I can think of to do about any of this apart from handing over a bag with three days worth of eating. Keep a record. Write it down. Send it out into the ether. Try and give these victims a voice.
My case study has been a regular over the last few months. He’s about 55 and once upon a time he was a coal miner. Well we all know what happened to miners in the late eighties. They were deemed surplus to requirements and rendered obsolete. Over the last twenty five years he has managed to get bits and pieces of work, but the town where he lives only ever existed for coal. Some moved away when the pit was closed. He stayed. And he has stayed in the same house for over thirty years. It isn’t a big house: two bedrooms. But it has a garden and gardening is his passion. For thirty years he has worked his garden and he is proud of it. Now he is unemployed again and his chances of work are beyond minimal. It wasn’t really his fault that he was born in a small Scottish town that had only ever existed to produce coal. It was the luck of the draw. Maybe he can be blamed for not smelling the coffee and upping sticks for pastures new. Maybe. Now he lives on his £65 a week Jobseekers Allowance and his rent and rates are paid by Housing Benefit.

And it’s hard.

No matter he cuts back he just can’t get his electric/gas bill under £30 a week. Which leaves £35 for everything else. Every fortnight he has to find £10 to take the bus to Dumfries to sign on. So that leaves £30 for everything else. He is a law abiding guy, so he keeps up with his TV licence payments. Which leaves £27 for everything else. And he is finding it really, really hard to manage, but he is managing. Just.

But on April 1 his life is about to become impossible. He has a monumental problem and it is heading down the tracks at him like a high speed train. His problem is that the house he has lived in for the last thirty years has two bedrooms. And he is only one person. Which means that he is about to become victim of the new ‘Bedroom Tax’. Which in his case will be £20 a week.

Right now he ekes out his existence on £27 a week after keeping the lights on and it is really, really hard.

On April 1 he will have to eke out a living on £7 a week after keeping the lights on. Which of course is impossible.

His options? Not great.

In theory he could ask for a transfer to a one bedroom flat and give up his garden and home of thirty years. The trouble is that there are no one bedroom flats to move into.

Alternatively he could take in a lodger.

Think about it. You are 55 and you live on your own in a small two up and two down house and all of a sudden you have a complete stranger sharing the bathroom and kitchen and lounge. And all for £20 a week. I have no doubt that the distant beaurocrats who have made this decision will see £20 a week as loose change. Money for Tall Lattes from Starbucks on the walk in to work.

The truth is that £20 is 75% of the disposable income after power costs for my ex coal miner and endless others.

It is cruel and unacceptable and unnoticed. It is happening behind hundreds of thousands of closed doors and it is happening to decent, ordinary people who have never done anything wrong.

Like you say Hannah, it is the very banality of evil.   


Monday, January 28, 2013

I really don't mind losing such a classic FA Cup battle, and if it pisses off my two sons, then so be it!

I nearly had a falling out with my two sons when the final whistle blew on Oldham 3 – Liverpool 2.

I somewhat rashly made a comment that I really don’t mind losing an old school FA Cup encounter such as the one that had just played out at Boundary Park. And they didn’t like that at all. Probably a generation thing.

Let’s face it, the game had the lot. In fact the elements that fell into place to create such a classic mid winter cup upset are worth listing.

1. Premier league v two tiers lower – I can’t bring myself to call it Division One because Division One is what we used to win in the 70’s and 80’s

2. One stand missing allowing a gale force wind to howl in from the frozen Pennines.

3. An all Northern affair played out in the Northern Way.

4. Rumours of only one toilet in the Main Stand.

5. A ball that kept disappearing behind huge banks of snow and under seats causing a waiting Jordan Henderson to wear the look of a man who has left home and can’t remember if he has switched the gas off.

6. A throw back six and a half foot monster fresh from non league leading the lower league line like a bull on Crystal Meth.

7. A second half deluge that almost overwhelmed the guttering on the rickety old stands.

8. Corner flags bent double in the howling wind.

9. A manager on the verge of the sack who was familiar as a hundred percenter in his playing days.

10. ‘Ashworth’s Pies’ up there on the roof of the stand as a main sponsor

11. Freddie Flintoff taking his seat.

12. A hoofed clearance clearing the roof and exiting the ground and the sense of the watching audience waiting and wondering if Oldham actually had the cash to cover the cost of a spare one…

13. The lower league outfit setting the scene with an opener after two minutes.

14. A goalkeeping howler from the Premier League team.

15. The young, good on the ball, Uruguayan Copa America winner wearing the 1000 yard stare of a Vietnam grunt by the 60th minute.

16. Stevie G coming on as a sub wearing his game face and playing like a lad from Huyton.

17. Gordon Strachan because Gordon Strachan gets it.

When you can put together a list like this after a thunderous fourth round cup tie, the fact that your team has come out on the wrong end of it really shouldn’t matter all that much. Well, it doesn’t to me at least. My lads on the other hand are products of the Sky generation. They have been brainwashed by the ‘payroll is king' mantra and find it hard to deal with the fact that footballers who do Nike adverts can be undone by footballers who earn the same as normal human beings.

The whole Premier League hype is something that turns me into a grumpy old man on a weekly basis. It gets me in the mood to put the radio through the window in rage when some cretin purporting to be a Liverpool fan from Croyden calls into a 'phone in' show to say that being in the Champions League is more important than anything because it means more money. They go on to rubbish the Europa League and say that the best thing is for us to go out in the early rounds so that we can concentrate on the pursuit of the Holy Grail of 4th place. Any fans who actually turn out for matches and harbour hopes of a trip to Amsterdam for the final of the so called second rate competition not surprisingly see such comments for the bollocks they really are.

We are endlessly told that payroll is everything, and if you don’t have the wherewithal to pay half your squad £150 grand a week you are doomed to be mid table nobodies. I heard some bloody journalist on the radio last week sympathising with Alan Pardew up at Newcastle because he has no money. No money! He has 50,000 fans a fortnight shelling out £40 each and north of £40 million from the TV. No money? What a crock of shit. No money is actually Bradford City who have put together a whole team for £7000, a sum which will just about cover six hours of Wayne Rooney’s salary.

I remember doing a fag packet calculation of the market value of the two teams when Argentina took on Germany in the 2006 World Cup. The Argies, who had a whole host of Nike advertising superstars such as Messi, Tevez, De Maria, Higuain and Milito had a squad price tag of over half a billion. The Germans on the other hand lacked the kind of globally recognised players Nike needs to rubber stamp its sweatshop range of apparel and probably would been buyable as a job lot for under a hundred million. So according to the rules of the Sky hype, there could only be one result. Well it didn’t work out that way. The Germans showed that tactics, hard work, careful planning and sheer team spirit were more than enough to overcome any amount of Sky hype and duly stuffed the superstars 4-0.

We are endlessly told that the days when a manager can emulate the achievements of Brian Clough and Bill Shankly and Don Revie and Sir Bobby Robson and the Aberdonian version of Sir Alex are long gone. No way can it happen ever, ever again because the only thing that matters is money. And we are endlessly told that the hundred year plus history of the FA Cup doesn’t matter any more because there isn’t any money in it.

Well yesterday afternoon went quite away to showing what a load of utter crap all of this is. Which is better? To stump up your £45 a month for an endless diet of watching United dispatch mid table teams 4-0 in the anaemic, sanitised surroundings of the Theatre of Matchday Income or what everyone got to watch yesterday afternoon free of charge on terrestrial TV?

When they came to The Etihad and The Emirates, the Dortmund fans were appalled at how dead and sterile the atmosphere was. Well they would have had no such disappointment if they had turned out at Boundary Park yesterday afternoon. Yesterday was football in the raw, as it used to be.

And like I said, I really don’t mind getting beat in that kind of proper, bare knuckle fight and if my two lads are pissed off with me for not being Mr Johnny come lately from Milton Keynes about the whole thing, then so bloody be it!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When charities start banging on about their Brand Identity it makes your heart sink like a stone.

I had a telephone call yesterday which warrants being shoved out into the ether. Well. I reckon it does. First, new readers of this blog will need some brief background. I manage a charity in Scotland and every month we hand out two hundred plus food parcels to the ever growing number of citizens who can’t afford to eat. To be honest, ‘food parcels’ isn’t the best way of describing what we give out. ‘Food Bags’ would be rather more accurate. Basically we put two and a half days worth of eating into a carrier bag. The contents are tins, packets jars and a loaf of bread and all you need is a microwave to cook it up.

OK. So that is all straightforward enough. What kind of people come in for these food bags? Just about anyone these days. From working families to chronic alcoholics and all stops in between. Loads of folk can’t afford a basket at Tesco these days. Are these people bad people?


They’re just people who have hit the bricks and hitting the bricks in Britain 2013 is not a good thing to do. I guess a fair proportion could be found under George Osborne’s ‘shirker’ umbrella which the tabloid press has latched onto with such enthusiasm. Let’s not get into all that. Basically these are fellow citizens who have come into hard times and like they say, everyone’s gotta eat.

So, Consider the scene set.

The relevant fact in terms of this blog is that First Base needs 2500 large carrier bags a year to do our stuff. For the last couple of years we have bought these from Lidl, by the box, for the sum of 9p each. Do we get a discount? No chance. Are we helping to destroy the planet? Probably. Should we shell out for some sort of uber-eco friendly bags made from re-cycled, biodegradable broccoli florets? Well maybe we should, but 9p a bag is about our limit. So Lidl plastic remains our bag of choice.

In the week before Christmas Carol and I were in the Barnado’s shop in Dumfries picking up some bits and pieces. Once we had paid up the guy at the counter asked if we would like a bag and we said sure, why not. The bag in question cost 9p and it was clearly labelled up as having come from Barnado’s. On closer inspection we both agreed at in terms of dimensions, it was actually way better than a 9p Lidl bag. Then of course we kind of figured that if we were going to spend the thick end of £250 a year on planet wrecking plastic, it would be rather better to invest the cash in a venerable old charity as opposed to a German grocer. And we also figured that it would be preferable for our food parcel/bag clients to walk the town advertising a much treasured childrens’ charity rather than a Teutonic purveyor of consumables.

I put this idea to the guy behind the counter and to be honest he was a little knocked back. The idea of anyone asking to buy 2500 carrier bags was obviously somewhat off the wall. He promised to have a word with his boss and get back to us.

No call.

Christmas came and went and the phone remained silent.

OK. Time for plan B.

Google – Barnados – Customer Services and a cheery lady who promised to talk with the Team in the Retail Department. And she promised that someone from the Team in the Retail Department would get back to me.

They didn’t.

Two weeks passed and the phone remained silent.

And looking back on it, alarm bells should have started ringing at the first mention of ‘the Team in the Retail Department’. Could Dr Thomas John Barnado have ever envisaged a ‘Team in the Retail Department’ way back in the Dickensian depths of 1866 when he set out to help the rickets ridden orphans of smog bound London? I bet he couldn’t.

Well, having waited a fortnight for contact to be established I gave up the ghost and tried again. This time I asked to be connected to the Retail Department and I was put through to the smooth voice that sounded all marketing and PR. She listened patiently to my Lancastrian tones as I explained how we bag up 2500 food parcels every year and would quite like to buy 9p Barnado’s bags to do the bagging.

At this point I could sense a feeling of quiet panic wandering up the phone line from London.

“You mean you would like to put emergency food for homeless people in Barnado’s bags?”

“Well it’s not all homeless people, but basically, yes.”

“I’ll have to talk to my Line Manager.”

Cue some music and a wait of a couple of minutes. I tend to get anxious when consultations with Line Managers interrupt a phone call. Organisations with Line Managers don’t tend to like the cut of the First Base gib much. They tend to see us as being too cavalier and not politically correct enough and maybe just too uncouth and Northern.

After a couple of minutes the smooth voice was back with me.

“I am afraid that we don’t think it would be appropriate for the Barnado’s brand to be associated with this particular activity.”

Ah ha! So that’s where all this was headed to. It was the Brand thing. Some of you might fond the idea of charities working on their brand image with the same enthusiasm as the likes of Nike and Chanel as being a bit strange. Absolutely not. Brand Identity is the new black for many of the big charities. This new state of affairs has come about over the last few years. Big charities have gone down the route of hiring in high profile Chief Execs to run their railroads along the lines of modern corporations. These individuals come in from the upper echelons of the corporate world and sometimes they even take pay cuts whereby they eke out a living on a lousy £100,000 a year to do their thing. These are of course man and women for whom Brand Identity is a major, major issue.

Well, it was made very clear to me that hell would freeze over before the iconic Barnado’s brand would be associated with a two bit charity from some godforsaken Scottish town complete with council estates and nasty poor people who can’t even afford a few items from the Tesco Market Value range. God forbid. I could sense the feeling of mild horror in the voice at the other end of the line as she summoned up hellish images of the horrid world in the frightening wilderness lands to be found north of the Watford Gap services.

At the top of this blog is the artist’s impression of the new Gucci Head Office that Barnado’s are building for themselves. It will be ready and raring to go by the spring of this year and the blub on the website promises ‘It will give us a modern, light and flexible working environment and provide the infrastructure and ways of working to enable Barnardo’s to continue to be the UK’s leading Children’s Charity.’             

Well jolly good for them, I must say. And let’s face it, if you were about to move into this kind modern, light and flexible working environment would you want your brand to be associated with a dodgy Scottish outfit doling out food to a bunch of shirkers? Absolutely not.

I wonder what Dr Barnado would make of it? Something tells me that he would have not been overly concerned about having a modern, light and flexible working environment way back then in the shit and squalor of Victorian London. I figure he would have been more concerned with cholera and diphtheria and TB and malnutrition and constant abuse. But what do I know about it?

Looks like we will be sticking to Lidl bags for a while.

Friday, January 18, 2013

In the Kingdom of the Blind, a one eyed man is screwed

‘In the Kingdom of the blind

…a one eyed man is king.

Beauty problems are redefined

The door bells do not ring.

A light bulb bursts like a blister

The only form of heat

Where a fellow sells his sister

Down the river

On Beasley St

I only need the most tenuous of connections to jump on any chance to quote some words from the Bard of Salford, John Cooper Clarke. Ever heard of him? He is, and always has been an absolute legend of the Northern punk scene of the late 70’s. The above words come from his greatest work, ‘Beasley St’, which caught the mood of everything from those half remembered dark days. Here you go, click the button and give Johnny a listen.

Anyone from my generation must surely have a small smile at the line

‘In an X Certificate exercise

Ex servicemen excrete‘

Keith Joseph smiles and a baby dies

In a box on Beasley St’

My hook for the Johnny Clarke connection is the fact that yesterday a one eyed guy was sent down to us by the Social Work for a food parcel. And no way was this particular one eyed man anywhere close to being any kind of king. On the flip side, it does seem more and more apparent that we are all residing in the Kingdom of the Blind these days. The call from the Social offered a small snapshot of Great Britain Plc in 2013.

I hope it’s OK so send a client round. He is experiencing difficulties. He has had his benefits severely cut and he can’t manage. We are referring him to Welfare Rights…. but…..


There always tends to be a ‘but’. The voice on the phone sounded fresh out of college and doing a stint on the front desk. The voice on the phone had a shaky quality about it. I pictured someone young, still trying to get their head around how quickly all the lights are being turned out right now. No doubt happy days in college saw essays about the Beveridge Report and the safety net dreams of 1945. And for a while, it really did seem like Britain had created something truly special out of the wreckage of our war against Hitler. After thousands of years of human evolution we had finally come up with a way to make sure nobody would hit the bricks and be left all alone to deal with it.

On the surface of things, the spirit of Sir William Beveridge still lives and breaths. Even George Osborne makes big claims to represent a warm and cuddly Government who would never dream of leaving a citizen in the shit.

But that’s the thing with politicians isn’t it? You just never really know how much of a line they are trying to peddle. But when you live in the Kingdom of the Blind, you can be forgiven for believing these politicain lines. They have a huge concrete monstrosity of a library in Pyongyang, North Korea. Inside the grey walls are something like a million books and until he drew his last breath, the Great Leader Kim Jong-Il was adamant that he had written every single one of them. Some guy! I’ve written twenty books over the last ten years or so and it has seemed like pretty hard work at times. Just imagine sitting down and knocking out a million. Wow. But that is why Kim was the Great Leader and I am just a two bit nobody. Or maybe, just maybe, he was being just a tad naughty and telling a porky pie. But North Korea is a Kingdom of the Blind if ever there was one. No doubt there are many who had their doubts as to whether Kim had really managed to pen a million books, but they probably keep such thoughts to themselves. To question the great man’s ability to complete 55 books a day for 50 years would have guaranteed a five year stay in a labour camp eating grass soup. But millions of North Koreans bought the line and not surprisingly they saw their main man as one hell of a guy. Well, who wouldn’t? 50 books a day for 50 years is seriously good going.

When this kind of nonsense is exposed as unmitigated crap it tends to come as a bit of a blow to those who had bought into it. We all want to believe in Santa and life is never quite the same when the truth is revealed.

I had a feeling that the girl on the other end of the phone was in process of learning that all those essays about Beveridge and his safety net have become yesterday’s news. The one eyed man at the other side of the counter of the reception desk was living proof that a new reality is now in place. At least George Osborne hasn’t got to claiming authorship of fifty books a day. Yet.


Five minutes later the one eyed man came in through the front door. And he came in with a story to tell. We get lots of stories at First Base.

For fifty years his life had been regulation. Bog standard. Family, school, house, job. No drama. Then one night as he made his way home, he was brutally attacked and left on the pavement as ambulance fodder. The legacy of Beveridge kicked in and he was duly delivered to the NHS to be put back together again. They did their stuff, patched him up and passed him along to the safety net wallahs. They examined his situation and weighed things up.
OK sir. Let’s have a look shall we? One eye gone completely and the one eye down to 50%. Mmmmm. Not so good really. Sadly we don’t think you will be able to work any more. But fear not. You see once upon a time there was this chap called Sir William Beveridge and he wrote this report and……

Well. Let’s not worry ourselves too much with the details. The thing is, the good news is that we are here to look after you. Isn’t that just completely smashing! Thank your lucky stars that you were born a citizen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We look after our one eyed men. If you had been born in Swaziland you would have been completely stuffed.

So they signed him off onto the list of the permanently sick and he adjusted his life accordingly. He told me it wasn’t much of a life, but what can you do? He could eat and he could heat.

And then everything suddenly changed. He was summoned to attend an appointment with the doctors from France and they made the astonishing discovery that he was OK to work after all. They duly passed on the great news to the wallahs of the Welfare State and recalculations were carried out.


Ever so sorry old chap, but we’ve cocked things up a bit. We’ve been over paying you I’m afraid. It was supposed to be a safety net but it rather looks like we gave you a hammock instead. There will have to be a reckoning up.


They gave him the news without any honey to sweeten it. Once all the adjustments had been made his weekly stipend from the Welfare State was reduced to £39 a week. But don’t worry yourself too much sir. Things will get better in time. As soon as you turn 65 you are entitled to a full state pension. Just imaging what a smashing birthday that will be! Just completely super!

So that was that. £39 a week for 5 years. Can you heat and eat for £39 a week? Doubtful. Which of course explained why the frightened little voice on the phone had hinted that the referral might need more than one food parcel. In fact it would probably need food parcels every week for the next five years.

As the one eyed man walked out into the bone freezing January cold, I couldn’t help but wonder if Mr Osborne is being entirely honest when he promises that the Beveridge safety net is still as safe as ever was.

I don’t think so George.

For a dose of truth, we could do worse than to take a trip to Berlin and listen in on what Angela Merkel is saying.

Check this out. She produced this sobering fact last week.

The European Union makes up 7% of the world’s population.

And that 7% of global population produces 25% of the world’s GDP. Which is actually pretty impressive when you think about it. But here’s the thing. That same 7% of the world’s people accounts for 50% of all ‘Social’ spending.


It kind of looks like a sum that not only doesn’t add up, but a sum that will never add up. Frau Merkel suggested that something’s going to have to give and I reckon George Osborne agrees. And my, oh my, is something ever giving. He’s just not telling us about it.

For we are all residents of the Kingdom of the Blind where the one eyed man is screwed.

Just for the hell of it, here's another dose of Johnny Clarke

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Big in America!

Well I am now a fully blooded veteran of the Free Section in the Amazon Kindle Store and it has been an interesting ride. I had something of an epic log on in the small hours of the morning whilst I was wide awake with insomnia. I guess it must have been four o clock or thereabouts and the house was like a fridge. I followed a few instructions care of Cally who has become my guide to the world of e publishing and lo and behold I came upon the list of the top free American downloads in the Political Fiction section and bugger me ‘Brief Encounter’ was sitting there at Number One. How completely ridiculous is that! Bizarre doesn’t even begin to cover the feeling. Before anyone gets the impression that ‘Brief Encounter’ was downloaded by the thousand I best front up and state the facts. After five days I managed just shy of 500 downloads which I reckon is pretty bloody good but I gather that in the great scheme of things it is quite pathetic really.

Whatever, I was suited enough. Maybe I should add a new strap-line to the description pages of all my books in the Kindle Store, something along the lines of ‘Big in America’!

Aye, right.

The effect on this blog has certainly been noticeable as page visits now seem to go up every day. Now over twenty hits a day land in from Russia and to be honest that seems oddly threatening! Interestingly a third of the visits the page now receives come from America and I always wonder what people make of my various rants about the crumbling state of Britain and the trials and tribulations of Liverpool Football Club.

Sales of my nineteen titles now average 4 a day which represents a 100% increase on where things were before the ‘Brief Encounter’ campaign. Four sales represent an income that threatens to break the £2 barrier so the high life is suddenly within reach. Ah well, small steps and all that.

The best thing about the whole process for me has been the realisation that a 60 page book is a completely viable commodity in the Kindle Store. I have written five books of this length for First Base, all of them set in the murky world of teenage drug abuse in the darker corners of urban Scotland. We give them away after our ‘Drug Awareness’ presentations in schools. Every now and then I get pulled up in the supermarket by nervous looking young people in their early twenties. They tell me that they once heard me do my stuff when they were fifteen or sixteen. And then we gave out one of our books and they took it home and read it. They say that if it had been three hundred pages they wouldn’t have bothered to pick it up. But 60 pages seemed a whole lot less daunting. Then they say that the fictional characters in the book were doing all the same stuff as they were doing in real life: Buckfast and blue valium and dope. And suddenly they got a glimpse of where their own lives might have been headed and they took the opportunity to make a few changes. I promise you, for an author it doesn’t get much better than that.

My short books are also a permanent fixture in the custody cells in Loreburne Police Station in Dumfries. For anyone unfamiliar with the realities of the weekend lock up, it goes something like this. On Friday night you get absolutely blattered on Buckfast and pills and all of a sudden it seems like the best idea in the world to set a wheelie bin on fire. Then the cops come and it seems like an equally good idea to call them every name under the sun and to have a go at being Mike Tyson. The next thing you know, it is 6am and you are in the custody cell which is four white walls, a gym mat kind of thing to sleep on and a white light that never gets switched off. And that’s it. For all day Saturday and all day Sunday and all the way to 10 am on Monday morning when you are presented to the Sheriff.

All in all you have 50 endless hours to kill and I gather they are as hard to kill as Osama Bin Laden. Well, if you find yourself all set for a ‘weekend lie down’ in Loreburne Police station you now get offered a choice of First Base books to help you to trudge through the long empty hours. Sometimes lads call in once they have been let out on Monday lunchtime to tell me that they have read all the way through one or another of the books. And they tell me that it has been the first time they have ever read a whole book. And they tell me that they have actually enjoyed the experience! As far as I am concerned, I’ll take that over any review in any literature section in a broadsheet newspaper.

The problem with sixty page books is that they are no use whatsoever for the shelves of a bookshop. Have you ever bough a skinny book like that? I certainly haven’t. It just wouldn’t seem right somehow, no matter how little it cost. It is a different thing altogether in the Kindle Store. All you see is the cover and the price and the description. And of course if you want there is the chance to read a few pages. The fact that thing costs a mere 77p is something of a giveaway, but 77p is hardly the biggest investment you’ll ever have to make. Hell the way my books are flying off the virtual shelf, I’ll soon be flush enough to download three a day.

I have to say I am completely suited with this idea. As a writer I really like writing books that are sixty pages long. Basically it means you can have a germ of an idea, let it roll around for a day or two and then crack on and have the thing done and dusted in a week or so. Then of course there is no pissing about with printers and deliveries and the like: you simply do what needs to be done in the publishing section and Bob’s your uncle.

As I write this I am two thirds of the way through the next offering and I am loving every minute of it. The working title is ‘Kenny’s Revolution’ and surprise, surprise it is all about Liverpool Football Club and there will be much more about it in blogs to come.

Here’s the thing. I had the idea for the story a couple of weeks ago and by the end of January it will be out there and available to every Koppite on God’s planet for the princely sum of 77p. And then for a few days it will be free. No need for publishers or printers or bank managers: only readers.

Like they say down on Merseyside these days, it’s 'well boss'.

Anyway. On the subject of short books I would like to recommend one to anyone who has stumbled upon these words. It is called ‘It Wisnae Me’, it is by Cally Phillips, it will cost you £1.56 and you can check it out by clicking right here.

I got to know Cally when she had a hugely arty role promoting wannabe writers like me across Dumfries and Galloway. She gallantly helped me in the quest for a grant from the Scottish Arts Council, a bid that ended in completely predictable failure – the fact that my stories appeared in paperback and were popular in Scottish Prisons was a complete death knell to any hope of funding. I mean how can it be called literature when a bunch of banged up Neds like it? Quite right too. As Cally says, at least I am still here and they are not. The Scottish Arts Council has been scythed down by George Osborne’s cutting axe.

Then we lost touch for a while as Cally headed three hundred miles north into the howling wilderness only to reconnect via Twitter. She has been a massive help in guiding me through the daunting labyrinth of the online book world and wrote a review of Brief Encounter which I appreciated hugely.

Having got hooked up to the idea of the short book I decided to check out one of Cally’s offerings. There is more than a little Irvine Welsh in ‘It Wisnae Me’ as it is written in unrelenting Scots which can take a while for a white settler from south of the border to get used to. But once you catch onto the rhythm of the thing the pages turn easily. If you are someone like me who grew up in the half forgotten years of the 70’s it is absolutely worth £1.56 of your money and a couple of hours of your time. It is easy to forget how kids were treated back then. The prevailing mood was that the harder we were treated, the better we would turn out. Getting caught by a copper when doing something stupid on a Friday night would lead to an inevitable trip down an alleyway for a quick kicking. Teachers must have spent many happy hours coming up with new and ever more imaginative ways to dish out corporal punishment. And parents wholeheartedly approved of their treasured offspring being generally knocked about and battered by a whole variety of authority figures. Such treatment was deemed to be properly character building. Sure there was a seriously dark side and some of this dark side weaves its way in and out of ‘It Wisnae Me’. For of course this was the era when Jimmy Savile and his ilk were able to go about their business without anyone noticing: the era of care homes from hell.

Kids were seldom listened to back then. We were generally bashed up and taught to get on with it. Did it build our characters? Are we all better for it?  Do we carry the scars to this day? I don’t know. I’m not aware of any, but then again I never ended up out of sight and out of mind in a care home or borstal. Maybe I’m biased, but it seems to me that my generation is the last generation to have the ability to take things in our stride. The miseries we experienced in the dismal classrooms of our formative years make us able to deal with the crap when it rains down on our heads. These days kids are treasured and listened to and protected and when the cold, hard reality of real adult life kicks in they find themselves completely lost in the supermarket.

‘It Wisnae Me’ offers those of us who grew up in the 70’s an E-Tardis back to those strangely threatening times. ‘It’s a Knockout’ and bombs in Belfast and footballers with perms and piles of garbage on the streets and nuclear weapons paraded through Red Square on May Day. Curly Wurlies and platform shoes and Morecambe and Wise.

Odd times and tough times. Times that shaped those of us who came to know the world through those harsh years when Britain learned the reality of its situation. They were the last times before Thatcher changed everything: forever.

Did ‘It Wisnae me’ make me nostalgic? No. Those days were too hard to be hankered for. Did it make me realise how those strange days shaped the person I turned out to be? I guess it did.

Have a read. I think you might find that Cally’s journey was a lot like your own.






Friday, January 4, 2013



This blog is something of a new departure for me for it is primarily addressed to the good people of the State of Montana. It really is one of those bizarre realities of our brave new online world that you can crash out words into a computer and sling them out into the ether in the general direction of a place many thousands of miles away. I am afraid I one of those who is at an age where all this stuff still seems way too weird to get the head around. Whatever!
So. Background. Why should a middle aged guy sitting in a clapped out cottage in the South of Scotland be sending out an open letter to inhabitants of the Big Sky Country?

I will do my best to be brief.

I do two main things with my life. I am an author and over the last ten years or so I have written seventeen novels. When the Amazon Kindle store asks me to categorise them, I tend to choose the options ‘Thriller’ and ‘Urban Life’. I guess most readers would consider me to be somewhat hard bitten and cynical. Most of the subject matter that fills my novels tends to come from the darker corners of our modern world - drugs and terrorism and the murkier areas of the State.

Why is this?

It is probably down to the second big part of my life which is running a small charity in the town of Dumfries. Most of those who come through our doors find their lives in a pretty bad place. We issue 2500 emergency food parcels every year. We help out families pulled apart by drink and drugs. We try to steer young women at risk of violence as a result of drug addiction clear of the dangers they face.

And then we support veterans from the wars our country has fought over the last half century and here is where the blog starts to point towards Montana.

About a year ago we lost one of our guys. He was called James and he was a fine a young man as you could ever wish to meet. He was six and a half feet tall and as strong as an ox: one of those big, quiet guys who would do anything for anyone. More than anything else, he had a steel core of decency running through his heart that was probably his undoing. Many times I could sense that he was on the verge of talking about things that had happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, but every time he eased himself back into his own private world. I never pushed him. To have done so would have been the wrong thing to do. Such memories need to be allowed to crawl out from the depths of the mind in their own time. I told myself there was no hurry.

I was wrong.

On a cold, cold morning last January my phone rang with the news that James had hung himself. Why? We will never really know for he left no note. All we do know is that he must have figured his life had reached an impossibly dark place for him to have taken such a path. On a few occasions he had touched on events he had been involved in which clearly troubled his sense of decency. Things he had done. Orders he had followed. Things that had made sense in the adrenaline fuelled insanity of combat: things that seemed questionable and abhorrent in the normality and calm of Civvy St. Did it all become too much on the wee small hours of a bone cold January night? Maybe. Probably.

It seemed like half the town attended his funeral and his loss is still felt. As a writer I felt that one day I should attempt to come up with something to recognise and remember James. A couple of weeks ago I suddenly remembered a story I had written three years ago with a main character that resembles James in many ways. The character in question is Nathaniel Kane and here is where this blog at last meanders its way to the point for Nathaniel Kane is a rancher from Montana who signs up to be a weekend soldier with the Montana National Guard only to find himself put on a plane to the raging war in Helmand Province at the time of Operation Panther’s Claw.

James often talked about times he had spent with American soldiers both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like all British squaddies, he was hugely envious of their top of the range equipment and he took any opportunity he could to tuck into food shipped out from the other side of the pond. He always spoke with great respect and affection of the young soldiers he had spent time with, both and in and out of the combat zone. I guess this was when I first made the connection between real life James and my fictional Nathaniel Kane.

One of the things that prompted ‘Brief Encounter’ was the dim and distant memories of the Sunday afternoon movies of my boyhood. My dad was an absolute devotee of two particular genres: anything about World War Two – his boyhood – and cowboy films – which he had come to love as a boy. A standard World War Two film from the 60’s almost always showed the Brits and the Yanks standing shoulder to shoulder against the Nazi tyranny. Looking back, there was nothing so very far fetched or fictional about this. We did indeed stand together in a war that was absolutely right in every respect. I have spent two of the most searingly gut wrenching afternoons of my life looking round the camps at Auschwitz Birkenau and Dachau. Time spent in those manifestations of Hell is enough to make anyone respect each and every soldier from all corners of planet Earth who came together to see off Hitler.

We have both stood together many more times since 1945. Sometimes the wars we have fought as allies have been broadly supported – Korea, Desert Storm and Kosovo. However, in more recent times this has seldom been the case. There are not many left who support what both our Governments have gotten us all into in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And so it was that my mind drifted back to those movies from my youth when John Wayne and Rob Mitchum and Burt Lancaster hooked up with John Mills and Richard Burton and Sean Connery, and everyone was more than happy that we were allies.  Next came the question of how to work this into a story without it being tacky and pathetic. Two characters would be required, one from either side of the Atlantic. I live in a wild, rural area of hills and valleys with a long and proud tradition of raising cattle, many of which have made their way to the cattle country of the States – we both share a love for Aberdeen Angus. So Character Number One would hail from Galloway, Scotland. So how about Character Number Two?

I have visited the States twice and once visited a cattle lot in a one horse town in Texas called Plainview. There were certainly plenty of cattle – about 30,000 if I remember rightly - but the whole set up was dismal, bleak and industrial. I have few fond memories of Plainview. So Character Number Two would have to come from cattle country I had never visited in person. Here is where I was drawn to Montana thanks to the books of Nicholas Evans. I loved each and every one of his books, most particularly ‘The Loop’ which I have done in both a paper and audio format. Where is the movie by the way?

So here’s the thing. All the Montana sections of ‘Brief Encounter’ are care of Nicholas Evans and Google. The Afghanistan sections are mainly care of listening to James. Whenever I write about events or places I have not actually known in person, I am always interested to hear from readers who have. Hence this blog which is aimed out west. Is the Montana in ‘Brief Encounter’ a decent reflection?

Once the ‘place’ side of things was squared away in my mind, it was time to move onto the ‘Who’? Two characters, but what characters should they be? How would they meet? How would a bond be forged? What kind of bond? This of course is standard author’s fare and it has been so for centuries. It is the way that fate can throw people from different worlds together in the most random of ways. And much to my own surprise, it seemed absolutely right that the Scottish character should be a female and all of a sudden the story became a romance.

This certainly came as something of a surprise and any readers familiar with my books will be frowning and scratching their heads. It is fair to say that romance plays a very minor role in my books. Why on earth had this unfamiliar road appeared? I thought about it a while and realised that it was once again down to those dimly remembered movies of my youth. It was once upon a time pretty standard Holywood fare for trans- Atlantic romances to be at the heart of Second World War films. Let’s face it, such story lines were hardly far fetched either. There was a pretty major coming together between British lasses and American lads during the long build up to D Day and many British lads were not exactly happy about it!

So the threads came together, the bones of the story took shape and I knuckled down and wrote the thing. Which only left the issue of a title. In the end it was a no brainer.

‘Brief Encounter’. 

For me, David Lean’s 1945 classic with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson comes in at number three on my all time list of favourite romantic movies. So why not name the book after either number one or number two? Well to be honest calling it either ‘Casablanca’ or ‘Doctor Zhivago’ wouldn’t work at all. ‘Brief Encounter’ on the other hand worked perfectly, so ‘Brief Encounter’ it was.

The story then sat for three years buried away in the files on my D Drive and to be honest I had all but forgotten it until recently. This of course is the absolute beauty of the Kindle. Publishing. A story no longer needs printing presses and ink and delivery trucks. And there is no longer the insurmountable problem of how on earth an author from nowhere-ville South Scotland can possibly get his books into the bookshops of Montana, USA. Kindle makes the Pond so much easier to jump across. So I’m jumping.

You can click the link below to download yourself a copy of ‘Brief Encounter’. Right now it is free of charge and it will be so for the next five days. After that it is available for the princely sum of 99 Cents / 75p which hopefully will not break the bank even in these dismal times. I guess it isn’t going to make me rich, but I gave up on the idea of books leading to treasure many years ago. Then again, if Robert Redford should decide to make a movie of it I won’t do any complaining!

So that’s about that. I am delighted to offer ‘Brief Encounter’ to all of you in far away Montana. I hope you enjoy it. Please let me know what you think. And James, wherever you may be right now, I hope you’re happy enough to be remembered through Nathaniel Kane. I kind of know what you would say to this idea, but it will have to remain between you and me because it certainly isn’t printable!