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.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


A little while back my Goddaughter Carmen turned 18 and joined the world of adults. This meant I had one of those ‘what the hell do I get her for a present’ dilemmas. It wasn’t easy on several fronts. First up was the usual issue of being flat broke. I’m always flat broke. But if you chose to write and work for a charity, what can you expect? Most of the time being flat broke isn’t a particular problem, but every now and then having a quid or two in the bank can be pretty handy. My Goddaughter’s eighteenth was certainly one of those moments.

So. What to do and what to get?

It didn’t take all that long for the idea of writing her a story to emerge. This is one of the very few upsides of being an author. Words are cheap. In fact, once you have shelled out for a laptop and a copy of Microsoft Word, words are free of charge. As many as you like, free at the point of delivery. Thank Christ. Maybe at this very moment George Osborne is scheming away in 11 Downing St – if only he could tax words at 5p a pop then the deficit problem would go away very quickly!

Lots of free of charge words and as many stories as my fading brain could come up with. But what story? There was the big question. What tale should a washed up man of fifty come up with to welcome his 18 year old Goddaughter into the world voting and pubs? Well. Voting at least. Carmen was no stranger to pubs.

Leads out, coat on and dogs summoned. Time to tramp about the Scottish countryside with plugged in headphones. Buzzards up in the sky, jagged hills on the horizon and Bowie and Joe Strummer in the ears. I find that if I try and force a story it tends to stay elusive. For me it is better to allow something to jump out from behind a bush. I would like to think that Mpene showed herself whilst Peter Gabriel lamented the loss of Steve Biko in Police Room 619, Port Elizabeth in September 1977. And maybe that indeed was the case, but to be honest I don’t remember.

All of a sudden I remembered standing out in the burning African sun by the lazy waters of the Gambia River. It was the early 90’s and we had lucked out on a hyper discounted week long trip to West Africa. The hotel was supposed to be a kind of Package Holiday Green Zone and punters were encouraged to only risk taking a peek at Darkest Africa via excursions on air conditioned coaches. That didn’t remotely ring our bell so we got a taxi into Banjul and managed to hire ourselves an old 4x4 that wouldn’t have passed an MOT at home in a million years. One day we found ourselves on a stretch of roadside at the place where the brown waters of the River Gambia met the crashing white breakers of the Atlantic. The lads jumped down and started messing about at the river’s edge. Dyonne was 7 and Courtney was 2 - just about learning the ropes of the whole walking thing. I have memories of high white clouds chasing across a rich blue sky. The breeze was rustling the reeds at the river’s edge and long legged birds waited for fish,

In many ways the River Gambia says everything about how we once went about our business in the days when we had our Empire. The river cuts a gash into Africa and you can sail a gunboat down the middle for fifty miles or so. The guys who had the job of pegging out the new claim for Britain did their job with care. They worked out how far they could sail down the river. Then they worked how far a gunboat to could fire a shell. The range of the guns governed how much territory could be controlled by the good old boys of the Royal Navy. So when you check out Gambia on a map, you will find that it is an odd sliver of a country whose territory runs ten miles or so either side of the river.

What we wanted was a nice secure port area to develop. A gateway for shipping out all the stuff we planned to nick from the interior. And then I spotted a wreck of a building out on an island in the middle of the river. It was hard to see at first glance. Then little by little it revealed itself. Old, ruined white walls that once upon a time must have been the local bonded warehouse of the British Empire. And what was the main commodity that we moved through those non descript white walls? What goods were we able to trade for glass beads and bottles of rum?

Black Gold. Human beings. Slaves.
Twenty million of them.

Men and women and children, carefully chosen for their potential to work the new sugar plantations of the West Indies. Strong enough to put in a fifteen hour shift and take a good lashing. Available for sale at knock down prices from hard faced Arab traders with coal black eyes.

Before Britain got itself into the slavery business, we weren’t much of an outfit. We were an inconsequential backwater of an island where it always seemed to rain. Every now and then we tried our luck and invaded France; sometimes we won, sometime we got our arses kicked. We were pretty good at piracy and not a lot else. Then we sussed out how to buy people cheap and sell them for top dollar. And we hit the big time. Within a couple of hundred years of getting into the African Slave Trade we had become Big Time Charlies and we were able to punch a long way above our weight on the world stage. We invested our slave profits well and the trainloads of cash we made from punting Black Gold financed the Industrial Revolution and the biggest navy in the world. In the end the slave money set us on a road that ended with the Union Jack flying over a third of the planet. Not bad for a two bit island off the coast of Europe.

As I squinted through the bright afternoon sunshine, a realisation hit me like a bucket of ice water down the back of the neck.

It hit me as I watched my two sons playing at the river’s edge.

It hit me as my statuesque partner Carol stood a few yards away gazing out to the far end of the Atlantic Ocean.

The realisation?

A little personal background is required here.

I am what the Government these days refers to as White British. And Carol is Black British. Afro-Caribbean Black British. ‘Afro’ as in once upon a time her ancestors lived in an African village until a bunch of heavily armed Arabs turned up one day and stole all the fittest and killed the rest. ‘Caribbean’ as in those same Arab traders marched her ancestors to the coast and traded them to my ancestors to ship across the Atlantic to Barbados. And my boys? Mixed Race Black and White British. ‘Muts’ as President Obama once put it with his trade mark grin.

The ice water down the back of the neck was the realisation that there was every chance that many hundreds of years earlier relatives of Carol and Dyonne and Courtney had passed through the white fort on the island in the middle of the river. By the time they were purchased and frog marched through the gates of the fort, they would have been about half way through their journey from hell. They would have already walked hundreds of miles through the heat and dust and already half of those who set out on the journey would have been dead; mere piles of white bones, all picked clean by the vultures.

Ahead of them lay an even worse journey. Weeks and weeks, chained and packed into the hold of a slave ship where disease would rack their bodies and many more would die. The survivors would be washed down and sold on to the plantation owners to be worked to death in the fields of sugar cane. In the 18th Century, the life expectancy of an African slave getting off the boat in Barbados was less than that of a Jew getting of the train at Auschwitz Birkenau in 1942. No wonder we do all we can to bury that particular part of our history.

I tried to get my head around how strong the ones who managed survive must have been. Their levels of physical strength must have been beyond awesome. No wonder their ancestors clean up on the sportsfields of the 21st Century. Their mental strength must have been beyond awesome. How on earth did they find the fortitude to carry on against such impossible odds? What wells of resolve did they tap into? And I suddenly felt a chill in the bones, despite the heat of the African sun. As I watched my two sons playing at the water’s edge I saw for the first time that they owed their lives entirely to the dogged, stubborn, heroic refusal to give up shown by an ancestor all those years before.

So it was that the memory of that realisation by the waters of the Gambia River came back to me as I tramped along country roads with blackthorn hedges and dry stone walls.

Like Dyonne and Courtney, my goddaughter Carmen also owes her time on the planet to long forgotten ancestors who found a way to live through the bottomless hell of the Middle Passage and the killing fields of sugar cane.

And with a smile, I realised that their legacy was not hard spot in my goddaughter. Words to paint a picture of Carmen? 'Stubborn', 'wilful', 'stroppy', a force of nature when ‘off on one’. Now where had all that come from? Surely these traits of her character had been passed all the way down the ancestral line from some young women stolen from her home and delivered into a hell on earth.

And surviving it.

Overcoming it.

Beating the odds and becoming a mother herself and ensuring that the line that joins Africa to Barbados to Britain was able to stretch across the years.

So it was the story formed very quickly in my mind. The connection between my goddaughter and her long forgotten ancestor. A debt of life.

And by the time I arrived back home I had decided on a name for my Goddaughter’s ancestor.


It isn’t a long story. You will probably have it read in an hour or so. It is available to one and all for the princely sum of 99p. Thankfully Carmen likes it and she hasn’t disowned me for describing her as ‘wilful, stubborn and stroppy’ in the book description on the Kindle Store. I hope the memory of Mpene helps her to fulfil her huge potential.

Enjoy the book. You can download a copy by clicking here
This is Bussa. He's one of those heroes we try hard to forget. He led a slave revolt on Barbados in 1816. We put down the revolt and executed Bussa. He is remembered by this statue. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013


Yesterday Moody’s finally decided that enough was enough and they pulled the plug on our triple A credit score. Let’s be honest, it’s hard to see why on earth it has taken them so long. When you look around it is hard to see many causes for optimism when it comes to the immediate future of Great Britain Plc.

Every day there are more potholes in the roads and the cracks in the wall get that little bit wider. We get a look at the big cracks in the papers and on the TV. They come complete with a picture of George Osborne and sharp suited analysts from the City who talk in economy-speak that makes no sense to the rest of us. All we get is an impression that things aren’t great and they’re more than likely going to get a whole lot worse.

At First Base we don’t get the big picture. Instead ours is the small screen. A front seat in the theatre of the bottom end of things where things are very quietly falling apart.

Here’s an incident from Friday. What does it represent? A sign? An indicator? The shape of things to come? The way things already are?

I was in the bank paying in a few donations. By the way, before going any further I simply must point out that one of these donations was a £100 from the staff at local JobCentrePlus. They do a Christmas collection every year and they choose a local charity. This year it was us - how's about that then! Thanks guys.

Anyway. I got my paying in book back and turned to leave when I clocked one of my clients pacing up and down and rubbing his head. And one glance was enough for me to see that he had that look in his eye. Now, when this particular lad has that look in his eye, things can get pretty damned hairy pretty damned quickly. New speak would term it ‘anger management issues’. It means that when he goes off on one, he goes off on one in a very big way indeed and God help anyone or anything that gets in the way.

I flagged him over and asked him what was up.

His eyes were blazing and finding the words was not an easy task.

His mum had died a week earlier and the funeral will be coming up soon. The funeral is far from Dumfries – three hundred miles and then some - and the fare for him and his brother to make it down was two hundred quid plus. His bereavement hadn’t come out of the blue. It had been imminent for some weeks and he had been trying to make some plans. He had filled in an application for a Community Care Grant, but it had been a wing and a prayer thing.

You see, my man is one of those who never seems to get a break. He has been failing to catch a break for thirty something years and after a while you just get to thinking that you’re doomed to get bad breaks on an permanent basis. A few weeks ago the local NHS Drugs Services cocked up and forgot to send his Methadone prescription to the pharmacy. He called in on Friday afternoon only to be told that things had been screwed up which meant he would have to wait until Monday for it to get sorted out. No Methadone till Monday meant being throwing up ill all day Sunday and not surprisingly he was pretty pissed off about it. So he had a moan. Just like we all have a moan when paperwork cock ups mess us about. But he is a lad whose reputation always goes before him like an air raid siren.

A quivering counter girl summoned her manager and the manager dialled 999. The cops piled in minutes later and my man had the joys of a holding cell for the weekend until on Monday morning he was charged with committing a Breach of the Peace. For having a moan. For saying that it wasn’t really fair that he should have to throw up all day because someone had failed to send his script to the Chemist.

He’ll probably get jailed for it at some stage. And them we’ll all shell out £5000 a month to punish him for standing at the counter in a chemist shop and having a moan. Like I said. He never seems to get a break. Last time he was in jail he was promised that a Rehab would be sorted out once he was liberated. When he got out he rang and rang and rang but nobody ever answered the phone. He finally got to see a psychiatrist when he was locked up and the medication he was prescribed helped to keep the anger under wraps. Guess what happened when he was lifted for his chemist shop moan? The Mental Health services played the health and safety card and said the psychiatrist couldn't see him any more because it wouldn't be safe to have him in the building. Because of his anger issues. So they couldn't see him until he took steps to deal with his anger issues. But they refused to help him with his anger issues because he had anger issues.....

Ever read Catch 22?  

Anyway. I digress. Back to Lloyds Bank on a cold, grey morning in February. Against all odds he had in fact been awarded a £250 Community Care Loan and he had turned up at the ATM to draw the cash and buy his tickets. He had made sure to spend as little as possible of his Monday dole money and he had done his sums. His account would show just over £300 in available funds and that was enough for him to do what he needed to do.

But it didn’t show just over £300.

Instead it showed £241 of which £72 was available. Somehow £229 had disappeared in the hours following the Department of Work and Pensions transferring the brass. And his brain was making like Reactor No 3 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant back in 86.

Like all good Koppites I did my ‘calm down, calm down’ thing and the mercury slowly stopped rising and then stabilised just short of the complete explosion mark on the dial.

We went to the desk and asked for a print out which was duly produced. And slowly the facts started to be teased out. The day before £70 had been claimed off his debit card by some online loans outfit.

What loan!!! I haven’t had….

More calm down routine.

Next up.

A further £159 had been requested via his debit card from someone else but the lady on the desk wasn’t able to see who it was.


Calm down.

You need to ring the debit card people at the bank…


Calm down.

I eased him out of the building and almost shoved a cigarette into his mouth. Let’s go to the Agency and make a few calls.

First up we logged onto the mysterious loan company and by now he had given me a few clues. Like I said, he had held out no hope of success when he had applied for his Community Care Loan. So he and a mate had spent an online hour in the library hitting the loans companies on the Net. He had drawn a big fat zero which of course was exactly what he had expected to draw.

So where had the £70 come from? I made the call and tried to tune out the canned music whilst my man muttered a succession of dark threats. At last I got through and having been passed from pillar to post for a while, the dismal facts emerged. When my man had ticked the online box asking if he accepted the terms and conditions, he had agreed to become a member of their scheme. This meant he had agreed for his debit card to give up a membership fee of £70 a month. And what did he get for his £70 a month? They would look around to see if they could find him a loan. Well they’d had a look. Well at least they said they had. And they hadn’t found one. Instead they had raided his account and lifted £70.

He all but blew a gasket and I force fed him another fag. Next stop, the bank. Oh yes, the lady knew all about the new ‘Membership’ scams that apparently are all the rage at the moment. She explained that Trading Standards have issued an edict that requires a refund of any so called membership fees. We needed to call them up and demand a refund. So we did and after another half an hour we were instructed to write to their Head Office with a formal request for the £70 back. Would an e mail do? Nope. Was it a Freepost address? Nope.

Basically they steal £70 and you have to write a polite letter to get your money back. Charming. Every step of the way there were barriers to clamber over and hoops to jump through and there wouldn’t have been a snowball in hell’s chance of my man keeping his temper for long enough to complete the course.

So next was the issue of the £159 that was about to be lifted. Could the lady from the debit card department of the bank shed any light? Yes she could. The claimant was the Money Shop. And straight away the red mist was descending again. My man explained that he had been into the bank only three days earlier to beg them not to give any more of his money to the Money Shop. And the manager had promised to what he could. Obviously he hadn’t been able to do enough, for here were the good folk from the Money Shop getting a hold of the lion’s share of his funeral travel money.

I was put on hold for some more music and I made an attempt to explain it all. Trust me, it isn’t an easy task to go through the niceties of compound interest to someone who looks like they are about to smash a train up. He had borrowed £180 in December and he had already paid them back more than that. So how could they take another £158 and stop making it to his mum’s funeral? How indeed? Thankfully the bank took his side and promised that the very moment the Money Shop claimed the £158 they would claim it straight back again and put back into the account from whence it came. She explained that Money Shop and the like have well trained computers that stalk the wee small hours of the night. Any cash doled out by the DWP goes live at 4.00 am. Their computers wait in the shadows like slavering hyenas until exactly 4.29 am and then they pounce to grab anything they can get. The message is don’t even think of giving out your debit card details to these people.

The advice was to get onto Money Shop and cut a deal. More canned music. More near eruptions. More force fed fags and in the end they agreed to cap the account at £277. And to add no more interest. And they also agreed to call off their hyena computer. We put to together an income and expenditure report and duly e mailed it to the relevant department with a proposal to pay off the £277 at a fiver a week: in cash: at the local office.

We’ll get their answer next week. And come Monday most of the cash will have been returned and my man will be able to buy his ticket south to bury his mum. The whole thing took just over three hours.

I don’t think that I am exaggerating in saying that had I not happened to be in the bank at the time, something dreadful could and probably would have happened. Somebody might well have got hurt and hurt quite badly. By now my man would have been in a remand cell and staring down the line of spending his next few years in jail. We the tax payer would have been hit with a bill for £200,000 and more to pay for locking him up and he would have had to come to terms with missing his mum’s funeral.

And why?

Because in our tawdry, shoddy country we allow financial shysters to con and rob those who are desperate and vulnerable. In Germany any financial institution who charges more than 9% interest is breaking the law and they will be prosecuted. In France the figure is 16%. In Britain, Wonga takes out prime time adverts to persuade people to get a payday loan at 4200%.

And why? Because smooth talking lobbyists from Eton and Harrow and Marlborough whisper in the ears of MP’s and promise non executive directorships and all manner of goodies so long as they sign on the right dotted line. How else can 4200% be deemed to be OK in the UK when the Germans set a limit of 9%?

It is corrupt as hell and it stinks to high heaven.

It is what we have become.

It is just another crack in the wall.            

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Pour yourself a coffee. If you smoke, then light one up. Take a deep breath or two. And prepare to feel completely pissed off about just how crappy this country of ours is becoming.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a couple of stories and you can make your own minds up about the picture they paint.

Regular readers of this blog will be more than familiar with my views on the ‘Bedroom Tax’ that will hit so many, so very hard on the first of April. For new readers, here it is in a nutshell. Take a regular Joe living on his own in a two bed house. He’s lived there for many years. He will have done this DIY and put a shed in the garden and a patio out back. He is in his late 50’s, he’s worked for many years but now he’s unemployed. He lives in a place where jobs are all but non-existent, especially for anyone over the age of 50.

How does life look now? Bloody lousy to be quiet frank. He will be drawing just over sixty quid a week in dole and the power bill, council tax and TV licence will take at least half of that. Basically he is left with £4.50 a day to feed himself, clothe himself and catch an occasional bus. Do the maths. It just don’t add up buddy.

On April 1, things are about to get a whole lot worse. In fact mathematically we can say that things are going to get just over 30% worse. For the rules say that one guy with two bedrooms just isn’t on any more. Not viable. There will be a price to pay for that pesky little box room at the back of the house with the view out onto the garden with the shed and the patio. The price is 11% of Housing Benefit. As a rule of thumb two bed houses in our neck of the woods come in at about £70 a week and right now all of that is covered by Housing Benefit. From April 1 my average Joe will be required to come up with £11 a week himself. Or move to a one bedroom flat of course. But there are virtually no one bedroom flats to move to.

I have no doubt that £11 a week must seem like chicken feed to a Government minister on £100k plus or a senior Whitehall Mandarin on double that. But when you are eking out an existence on £4.50 a day, a drop of £11 a week means you have to find a way to live on £3 a day.

Could you?

Now I am a member of a dwindling minority who has a deal of respect for George Osborne. Once upon a time I was a director of a family business that hit the bricks big time in the wake of the BSE crisis. We owed north of two million to NatWest and a French bank and my oh my did they ever want it back off us. Everything our family owned was hocked and if we had failed to keep the balls in the air it would have been the Homeless Department and probably prison. When you owe an absolute tonne of cash to people who want it back, you really need to have a story to tell. George is the man who is expected to go out to bat for us all and persuade the Chinese and the Arabs to carry on lending us £120 million a day. That’s £2 each by the way – just a quid a day more than my imaginary Joe will have to keep body and soul together once he’s hit for £11 a week for his box room. Now the Chinamen and the Arabs don’t do welfare and they don’t much rate countries that do. Try being on the dole in Shanghai. Not a great look I’ve heard. So they look at us with our NHS and free education and 6 million non workers and they wonder if we are a viable concern. Their view is why should we lend you lot our money to pay six million souls to do bugger all. It just ain’t the Chinese way of doing things. And let’s not forget, they haven’t even begun to forgive us for turning half their population into opium addicts and stealing Hong King in the Nineteenth century. Would we forgive them if the boot was on the other foot? I don’t think so.

But simply sweet talking his way into borrowing the hundred and twenty mill a day is only half of George’s problem. He also has to convince the Chinamen and the Arabs that we are a miles better bet than all the other European basket cases who are queued up at the door. The Spaniards, Italians, Portuguese and Irish are being charged 7% for their money. We are paying 2%. What does that actually mean? Well 2% is costing us £35 billion a year. 7% would cost an extra £85 billion or so. £85 billion is basically the whole of the Defence and Education budget. Just on the interest! There are 30 million Brits working and paying our taxes at the moment. If the Chinamen and Arabs decide to hit us for 7%, we will all have to find £2850 a tear each to stump up for the extra interest. Either that or close down every school in the country, make the whole army redundant and scuttle the fleet.

So we can go on all we like about George being an old Etonian who can’t remember the last time he ate a pasty, but in my book he’s a miracle worker. I mean, be honest, if you had a pile of cash would you lend it to Britain for 2% year? Put it another way – would you lend cash at 2% to a drug dealer who had once got your whole family addicted to Smack and nicked your weekend caravan? I don’t think so.

So how one earth is he managing it? He’s playing to the gallery of course. That’s what you have to do when you owe a tonne of money and you can’t afford to pay it back. You need to brush up on your Arthur Daly routine. The Bedroom Tax will only save a handful of loose change in the great scheme of things. Maybe a billion a year? A lousy week’s worth of interest payments. But that isn’t the point. What it will do is create endless amounts of pain and misery for a whole bunch of blameless people. And their stories will play out in the press and on the TV. And George will collect all the cuttings and put them in a scrap book and show it to the hard faced guys from Beijing. And they will like it. And when he tells them how serious he is about getting a hold of the out of control welfare system, they might just keep on believing him and keep doling out the cash.

At 2%

But my made up guy with his £11 a week box room is only half of the story to be told in this blog. Last week I had a chat in Tesco with a local councillor. He was fuming. In fact I’m amazed the smoke pouring out of his ears didn’t set off the fire alarm. I have to tread carefully here to keep my man’s anonymity in tact. He told me the story of three senior managers in one of the local Council Departments. Like box room man, all three were in their late 50’s. The boss was on £100k a year and his two assistants were on £50k a year. And everything was about to change when it was decided that their department was to be closed down and centralised in six months time. Well, that’s life isn’t it?

So here is what they did. The boss took early retirement and started to draw his final salary pension – 70% of £100k = £70k a year until the day he dies. Very nice. If an ordinary Joe like yours truly was to save enough to get a pension of £70k a year I would have to save up £1.4 million. Let’s say I want to retire at 55 and I left university at 21. That gives me 34 years to salt away the £1.4 million. That’s £41,176 a year for 34 four years! These senior pubic sector managers must be pretty special people to warrant that kind of reward from a grateful public. They must run some absolutely tip top services. Or do they? Visited Germany lately?

Anyway the boss took early retirement and assistant number one stepped up to the top job and trousered a £50k a year pay rise.


And he ran the shop for three months. And then he took early retirement with a package of 70% of final salary = £70k a year.

And you can no doubt guess the next part.

Oh yeah. Assistant number two stepped up, ran things for two months, and took early retirement. Another £70k a year. The enraged Councillors were told that there was not a thing they could do about it. This was an operational thing. Not a democracy thing. This was for the Chief Exec and his minions.

So the good folk of Dumfries and Galloway all got rooked to the tune of £70,000 a year for as many years as the guys in question live and breathe.

Here is the sum that really pisses me off. It will take the Bedroom Tax of 140 guys like the one I described to cover the extra pensions the two assistants got a hold of by playing the system. 140 people are thrown into even more abject poverty to fund three guys living an undeserved life of Riley by playing the system.
Let’s face it, the whole thing was about as bent as it gets. But they had great lawyers of course and they will be at pains to tell anyone who might have a moan that they haven’t broken any laws. Well, not the law of the land. But your morals stink like a truck load of rotten fish guys. You’re a disgrace and you should be named, shamed and banned from every shop, pub, restaurant and golf club in the region. For ever. You should be chucked out of the Rotary Club and never invited to a barbeque again. You are a bunch of Shysters. End of.

So George. Here’s an idea for you to chew on and I reckon the Chinamen and the Arabs would lap it up. Give the bedroom tax a miss and try this out for size. You have told us all that it is wrong for any family to get more in benefits that a working family on the average wage. So you have set a cap of £26k a year and there are very few of us who disagree with that. I for one am more than happy with it. And your reason? The country’s broke and the Chinamen and Arabs want to see us making an effort. Fair enough. So why not take it a stage further? The country’s broke. Agreed. Therefore we can no longer pay any individual a public sector pension of more than £26,000 a year. Imagine the savings George! Just think of all those retired Headmasters and Chief Constables and Brigadiers and NHS bosses and Whitehall Mandarins and GPs and Council Chief Execs…….

And all of them on pensions of over fifty grand a year for ever and ever Amen. You could save fifty times what you are saving on the Bedroom Tax. And would anyone complain? Well the ones having to get by on a lousy twenty six grand a year pension would have a moan, but would anyone else give a stuff? I don’t think so George. Hell, you might even be popular for once!

Oh. Almost forgot. It would mean having a go at the Establishment, wouldn’t it? And we don’t go in for that kind of thing in Britain. Do we George? Of course we don’t. Not ever. That was what they taught you at Eton. We do Empire and slavery and opium and gunboat diplomacy. We can mow down Matabele tribesmen by the thousand until the barrels of our Gattling guns glow red. We can lock away half a million Kikuyu in concentration camps. But have a go at the gilded Establishment? Good Lord no. What a thought! Not done thing, old chap. Not the done thing at all.

One day people are going to get very angry about all this. Very, very angry.     

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


I guess just about every charity has moments when the coffers threaten to run dry and everything looks as bleak and unforgiving as a railhead at a Siberian Gulag. First Base has certainly had its share of such torrid times. The worst came six years ago and for a while things were touch and go to say the least. That autumn we had a Management Committee meeting that was probably similar in mood to a 1940 Cabinet Meeting when the topic of the day was the fact that what remained of the British Army was stranded on Dunkirk beach.

I remember all too well the sick feeling in my stomach as I laid out the facts. There was enough cash to see us through until Christmas. Then not a brass farthing until April. Three gaping, empty cashless months. It was our Greek economy moment.

Our Chair, Hilary, was forensic in her examination of the plight.

Applications in the pipeline?

A few.



Other options were kicked around but none seemed to offer much chance of success. Finally I summoned up the nerve to throw a final and ridiculously hopeful card onto the table. At home in Lancashire we call it ‘muck or nettles’.

I said that I had been looking into a larger than life guy who was starting to attract attention as the new owner of Gretna FC: Brooks Mileson.

The word was that he was a wildly eccentric millionaire who hailed from a Sunderland council estate and held the view that football clubs should play their part in tackling issues that affected the communities from where they drew their support. He was starting to gain a reputation for spontaneously supporting a variety of charities.

So why not First Base? No doubt the estate where he grew up would be home to the same kind of heroin plague that was sweeping Dumfries and Galloway at the time. Surely he would have witnessed at first hand the kind of havoc Smack could cause to families and communities. If my gut feeling was right, then maybe he might be interested in a small charity with a decent track record of telling it straight to 2500 school kids every year.

Our Treasurer’s dad was once upon a time the Chairman of our local team, ‘Queen of the South’. Did Norman know Brooks? Sure. They sometimes stood together behind the goal for home games. This was one of the elements of the Brooks legend: he hated Director’s Boxes and refused to sit in them. Instead he preferred to stand with the regular fans.

Was there any chance that Norman would be able to fix me an appointment?

Only one way to find out. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Hilary raised an eye brow at the idea and it said all there was to say. We were in ‘Stoppage Time’.

A couple of days later Norman was on the phone saying that a meet was fixed. He collected me the next day and we took the 20 mile drive down the A75 to the small village famous for accommodating eloping couples wanting to tie their knots in a hurry.

The home of Gretna FC is Raydale Park and in every respect it is a far cry from the cathedrals of the Premier League. The office was a Portacabin round the back of the main stand which boasted a capacity of about five hundred.

The office had the kind of set up you would expect to find in a well run scrap yard with the exception of a rather impressive boardroom table.

There was no receptionist and ‘please take a seat whilst I let him know you are here’ routine. No pot plants and coffee tables with magazines and corporate brochures. Instead there was Brook leaping to his feet and striding over to shake hands. It is fair to say that Brooks never much looked like your archetypal football club chairman. Long greying hair in a ponytail, rigger boots, non designer jeans and a tatty anorak. I was immediately struck by his constant energy. He was a man who would never sit still for very long. His mind jumped from one thing to another like a rabbit on a hot plate. Now sitting. Now standing. Now pacing with arms waving about with endless enthusiasm.

Now anyone who knows me will confirm that I can smoke with the best of them. Fifty a day is average. I hate to think how many it is when I am writing. But Brooks made me look second division. It would have taken a Chinaman to keep up with his chain smoking.

Ridiculously and typically, he had only taken up the tabs in his fifties when the doctors had told him that his health wasn’t going to see him through for much longer. But defying the odds was something he was an old hand at. A childhood accident had left him bedridden for over a year. The doctors had told him that it was unlikely that he would ever walk again. His view on their diagnosis was that it was all a load of bollocks. He gritted his teeth and set about proving them all wrong and did he ever. Not only did he walk, he ran. And he became a cross country champion.

He took the same ‘can do’ attitude into his business career and made a pile of cash in insurance. I can picture his trademark grin now as he explained his vision for what remained of his life through a billowing cloud of smoke.

“I’ve been lucky Mark. Made a tonne of cash. And now the doctors tell me there isn’t long left so I’m having the time of my life pissing it all up wall on Gretna FC.”

At the time the team was sitting top of Division Three and set for promotion. There was a deal of grumbling at the fact that Gretna were a fully professional team in a league of part timers. But what struck me was the fact that the budget for community programmes was more than the budget for player’s salaries. Just imagine the impact on the tough streets of Anfield, Salford and the like if the Premier League giants ever took a similar approach.

I explained the parlous state of the First Base finances and pitched the idea of a book telling the tale of a prodigiously talented young player crashing and burning his life through drugs only to find salvation through football. Brooks signed on for the whole thing. He was delighted to hear that one of the prime reasons for our precarious state was the fact that the local establishment was hell bent on shutting us down for exposing the inconvenient truth about the local Methadone programme. He had an instinctive affinity with the little guy: the maverick: the voice in the wilderness. He was a football loving Trotsky with an anorak and the next fag lit off the butt of the one just smoked down to the butt.

‘Don’t worry. We’re not going to let the bastards knock you down Mark. No chance. And let’s do the book thing as well. I like that. That sounds great.”

After three hours I walked out of the Portacabin with a cheque for £20,000 and commission to write a book.

The next couple of years were one hell of a ride. I cracked on with writing ‘Stoppage Time’ which seemed a rather appropriate title. And no matter how far fetched my fiction might have seemed, it never came close to matching the ‘Boys Own’ reality of the antics of the team in real life. The Johnny Come Lately second division club from a village with a population of 3000 only went and made it to the Scottish Cup Final at Hampden Park!

Crazy. Outrageous. Bloody marvellous.

And Brooks loved every madcap second of it. Once the book was finished he read it and liked it. The original plan had been to print 4000 copies to hand out to school kids across the region. But that plan didn’t come close to matching Brook’s enthusiasm. Bugger that. Let’s do 10,000 copies so we can give out copies to parents as well. In fact bugger that as well. Let’s do 20,000 copies so we can hand out free books to fans when they come to the match…

And so it was that ‘Stoppage Time’ was born and First Base lived to fight another day. Would we have survived without Brooks? I doubt it. The writing was on the wall in six foot high letters. That was 2006. In the six years that have followed we have given food parcels to well over 10,000 people with no money to eat. We have done our best to help many families and individuals with the gnawing problems eating away at their lives. And many, many young people have read ‘Stoppage Time’. How many were able to draw on the fictional trip journey Danny McCann takes from high spirited cannabis to the lower depths of heroin and thereby step back from taking the same dismal journey themselves? Who knows? Every now and then I am stopped by young men and women in their mid twenties in the aisles of the supermarket. They tell me that when they were 16 they were on the brink of making the same mistakes as my fictional Danny. They tell me that ‘Stoppage Time’ was their wake up call. They tell me that things are going well now – a job, a home, an infant child, a life….

So there you go Brooks, your legacy lives on.

Gretna made it into the Premier League and even the dizzy heights of Europe. But in the end the money ran out and Brooks’s health finally failed. He had raged at the dying of the light, but it was never going to go on for ever. The last rites were messy and many bills never got paid. For many, his memory is now tarnished but not at First Base.
Not ever.

I have met very few men and women in my half century on the planet who I can say that I have felt truly honoured to have known. Brooks Mileson is one of the few. He gave until there was nothing left to give. He had a heart as big as a lion and he made a difference in many, many lives.

‘Stoppage Time’ is available as a free download from the Kindle Store for three days from Friday, February 15th. You can find it via the link below. I hope you get a copy and enjoy it.

So I guess I’ll wrap up, light up a cigarette and give a nod to the man who made it all happen.

To you Brooks.

One of the good guys.  
15 - 17 FEBRUARY

Thursday, February 7, 2013


Within minutes of the two planes smacking into the World Trade Centre on September 11th 2001, the idea for ‘Terrible Beauty’ started to take shape. What could possibly take men to the place where they were willing to give their lives in exchange for such biblical carnage? How long would the process take? How would it look?

Then there was a second question. My adopted home is Scotland and our largest city is Glasgow. If such a monumental act were ever to hit Glasgow, where would it come from? Would it come from the dusty refugee camps of the Middle East or would it come from the downtrodden terraced streets of West Belfast?

Who might do such a thing and why would they do such a thing? And why?

As an unknown author with next to no income and a handful of maxed out credit cards, there was no possibility of a flight to Jordan or Beruit or Kabul to meet such men. Even if I had been able to afford the journey to the modern hotbeds of terrorism, it would have taken me months and years to be trusted enough for any kind of access to have been granted.

Instead I took a much more obvious route. I took a drive along the A75 and caught a Stena Line ferry to Belfast. After a period of having doors slammed in my face, things slowly but surely began to open up. The research took a year and it was one of the most extraordinary journeys I have ever undertaken. Sometimes a journey can involve many thousands of miles and it takes you to a destination that looks and feels far from the familiarity of home. The journey to the six counties of Northern Ireland is a short one in terms of miles and when you arrive everything looks much like home. Small, struggling post industrial towns and harshly beautiful landscapes swept by the same grey Atlantic rain that sweeps my own home turf of Lancashire.

However journeys can be measured in more than miles. My journey took me deep into 700 years of sorry history which makes it hard indeed to feel any great pride in being born British. It took me deep into hatreds rooted in hundreds of years of endless cycles of revolt and reprisal. I was lucky have the chance to spend time with men who had been involved in extraordinary events during the long, dark years of 'The Troubles’ which exploded onto our TV screens in 1969 and went on to dominate the evening news for the next thirty years.

By the end of it, I felt that I had been given a handle on the dark, simmering hatred that lay behind centuries of repression and heartache. I met good, passionate men who had been drawn into very dark places: decent men who had committed the very worst of deeds. Two in particular gave me a privileged insight into the shadowland where good men choose to walk the dark road:

David Ervine and Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane.

In 1974 David was caught driving a stolen car loaded up with commercial explosive. He was a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force; a terrorist. A judge sent him down hard. He emerged from a 11 year sentence in the Maze Prison with a desire to use the ballot box to secure a workable peace for his people – the Protestant community. In 1998 he was credited as being one of the key players in the Good Friday Agreement by Senator Mitchell.

Bik was sent down for life in 1976 for his involvement in an IRA attack on the Bayardo bar in the Loyalist Shankill district which saw 5 dead and 60 injured. By 1993 Bik had become the longest serving prisoner in the Maze, though his time on the H blocks had been anything but uneventful. He lived through the desperate years of the Dirty Protest before assuming command of the IRA prisoners when Bobby Sands went on hunger strike. In 1983 he led the Colditzesque mass break out of 38 prisoners and for his three years on the run he was the most wanted man in Britain. By the time he was released on parole in 1997 he had served over 20 years behind the wire.

I had been brought up to see such men as the very epitome of evil, wicked terrorists. Common, violent criminals according to Maggie Thatcher. The very lowest of the low. However, the men I spent time with were charming, passionate, intelligent and articulate. They were in fact two of the most impressive men I have ever met.


Terrorists or freedom fighters?

A question as old as history. It is the question that runs through the heart of ‘Terrible Beauty’ as the story follows two men from neighbouring streets in West Belfast as they travel the dark road through thirty years of ‘the Troubles’. In the end one arrives at the place where he is willing to commit the greatest outrage of them all: Glasgow’s very own 9/11.

Many men and women who travelled the same dark road as David and Bik have read the book and they have told me that it gives a true account of what can make good men do bad things. Their opinion is good enough for me. The blog below gives a much fuller account of the evolution of ‘Terrible Beauty’. It is probably far too long which is why I have written this briefer insight into the journey I took when researching and writing the book. If this process is of interest, please have a look at the blog below this one.

Right now ‘Terrible Beauty’ is free in the Kindle Store and it will be free to download until close of play on Sunday, 10th February.

I hope you download it and enjoy.        

The evolution of 'Terrible Beauty'


For several weeks now the evening news has carried footage of the kind of Belfast street scenes that were such a staple of the media diet in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s. Clouds of tear gas and lines of riot police and the jumping light of burning cars. And not for the first time it is all getting blamed on the flying of a flag. The wrong flag for some, and the right flag for others.

So it was that a couple of nights ago I was reminded of something that really should have been staringly obvious to me – I have a book in the Kindle Store which carries a cover image of the Union Jack and the Irish Tricolour, both wrapped together in an eternal conflict.

The book in question is ‘Terrible Beauty’ and it tells a thirty year tale of two guys from neighbouring streets in West Belfast as they travel the dark road through the Troubles. I had been mulling over which of my titles should be the next to be showcased in the Kindle Store Free Section. Well, the fact that the whole issue of which flag flies over the six counties of Northern Ireland is once again front and centre of the news makes it a no brainer.

It appears my tale of 'The Troubles' has managed to be topical again.

So why not?

Having made the decision to put ‘Terrible Beauty’ out into the vastness of the Amazonian internetland, it seems only right and proper to tell the story of how the book came about.

Like many books, ‘Terrible Beauty’ was born out of that moment on 9th September 2001 when two airliners slammed into two New York skyscrapers. For my mum and dad’s generation, the assassination of JFK in 1963 became the fixed moment in time when everyone remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing when the news came through.

9/11 was our Kennedy moment, and within minutes of the unbelievable pictures hitting the world’s TV screens, it was clear that nothing would ever be quite the same again.

Almost immediately the frantic tone of the news was set and it has essentially remained unchanged for the next decade. The people who drove the planes were wild eyed, raging psychos. The worst of the worst. Crazed scum who were to be eradicated at all costs.

From the get go this didn’t sit well somehow. A line from Kurtz in 'Apocalypse Now' refused to leave my head.

‘These were not monsters, these were men, trained cadres, these men who fought with their hearts, who have families, who have children, who are filled with love.....yet they had this strength, the strength to do that.’

I couldn’t help but imagine how it must have been for the plane drivers in those last seconds as the building got closer and closer. Was it over simplistic simply to write them off as maniacs?

Probably. Almost certainly.

Surely something appalling must have happened in their lives to generate such an all consuming, dogged hatred. And was it really hate? Or was it a deep rooted sense of duty to something they believed in with all their hearts?

I wrote a letter which none of the newspapers printed. It wasn’t unexpected. In the letter I painted a fictional scenario set way back in 1941. This of course was the time when Hitler’s Reich was at its zenith. He ruled everything from the French coast to a thousand miles into the Soviet Union and he seemed to be completely indestructible. Only Britain and our Commonwealth allies stood against him, and our stand seemed utterly doomed. In my made up scenario, there was one other opponent who the Fuhrer had failed to squash. This was a Czech freedom fighter who had retreated deep into the forests of Transylvania with his band of guerrillas.

Let’s call him Radec.

Radec had become the last beacon of hope for those who wished to oppose the Nazis. Young men from all over Europe who had seen their loved ones shot or hung or tortured by the Einzatzgruppen death squads duly made their way to the forest to join him.

On 11 September 1941, a crack team of Radec’s men hijacked four Junker aircraft from airfields around Prague and headed for Berlin. They crashed two of the planes into a packed Olympic stadium where 100,000 of the Nazi faithful were attending a Party rally. A third plane hit the Reichstag whilst the fourth would have hit the Gestapo HQ on Prinz-Albrecht Strasse had the German crew not overcome the hijackers. The resulting carnage in the Olympic stadium was gothic in its scale. 3000 civilians were killed and many more injured.

How would we have received the news in Britain? Would we have been outraged and appalled at the attack? Would we have branded Radec’s men as raging maniacs and cowards? I don’t think so. We would have glorified in such an act of bravery and self sacrifice. We would have named streets after them. Churchill would have taken to the airwaves to urge all of us to take the example set by Radec’s heroes to our hearts and to draw courage from their act of ultimate sacrifice.

This wasn’t a view that anyone had the remotest interest in hearing the hysterical days of anger and rage that followed Bin Laden’s attack. But a seed was well and truly sown in my mind.

I got to wondering about what could possibly lead to such an apocalyptic strike ever happening in Scotland. In our biggest city. In Glasgow. Would it come from men living far away in the refugee camps of the Middle East or the training centres in the dusty mountains of Afghanistan? Or would it come from much closer to home, from a mere fifteen miles of so across the Irish Sea?

I felt pretty certain that any such act would be years and years in the making. An event would happen in a man’s life that would harden his heart and make him yearn for revenge. This act or event would represent some kind of last straw that would make him cross the line and join up with others hell bent on seeking the same payback. Then over time he would rise through the ranks of his chosen organisation, all the while building a reputation as a person who would stop at nothing. And finally he would be one of those selected to carry out the greatest attack of them all. The big one.

The Spectacular.

What would such a man be like? And what would his journey involve? How long would it take for him to reach a place where he was willing to drive a passenger jet into a high building; to live out those few seconds of complete and utter terror before perishing in a bone melting fireball?

As a flat broke author, there was no chance in a million years of me affording a plane to the Middle East to find such men. And even had I been able to fly to Jordan or Lebanon or Afghanistan, I would never have been allowed close. That was when I suddenly realised that all I had to do was to drive 70 miles to Stranraer and catch the ferry to Belfast. It was both do-able and affordable and there were plenty of guys in Ulster who had taken that particular dark road during the thirty years of the Troubles.

But would they give houseroom to a two bit author from Lancashire?

Well, there was only one way to find out.

Day One of researching the story was nothing if not memorable. Carol and I took a mid winter 'off peak' saver offer from Stena Line and sailed the across grey waters of the Irish Sea to Belfast. We checked into a Bed and Breakfast that was very much of the modest variety and made a simple plan. Reception had provided a fold up map of the city and we duly plotted a route. We headed out into a night of dismal, chilling rain and made our way to the spot where the Springfield Rd crosses the Falls Rd. This intersection is home to the police station where the very first shots of 'The Troubles' were fired in 1969.

By the time we were a few hundred yards shy of the Falls Rd, it was clear that we were sticking out like the sorest of sore thumbs. The ghostly figures of young kids flitted in and out of the light and tracked our every step. When I was further into my research, I learned that such kids are known as ‘dickers’ and it is their job to spot strangers and report their presence up the chain of command. By the time we reached the junction the rain was coming on hard and it seemed a good idea to dive into a pub for a while.

At this point I should mention that Carol and I are a mixed race couple; I’m white and Carol is black. Over the years we have been sore thumbs in many different places. In Vilnius and other like minded East European cities where swastikas are spray painted onto peeling concrete walls, it was Carol as the unexpected black person who made us sore thumbs. In Brooklyn it was my turn to be the token white man. At times it has felt hairy and there were a few crumbling estates of Stalin style tower blocks in Lithuania where I have no doubt that we would have been beaten to a pulp had our hire car broken down.

But nothing before or since has come close to walking into that pub on the Falls Rd on a wet night back in 2002. You know those scenes in 50’s Westerns when a cowboy walks into the wrong saloon and a frozen silence descends over the place. Well that was how it was. Had I ordered our drinks in an American accent, things might have been OK. But my Lancastrian accent was not what anyone wanted to hear. The barman made it clear that we should not take long over our drinks and we didn’t.

Fifty yards down the empty Springfield Rd were the gates that took us through the wall that separates the Republican streets of the Falls from the Loyalist turf of the Shankill. More flitting waifs in the alleys. More seeping rain. Another pub and another wall of silence. This pub had a bold sign up behind the bar. It said ‘No Shooting’ and it didn’t seem as if any humour was intended.

Back out into the night and by now we were ready to get back to the city centre pretty damn quick. Halfway down the Shankill the ten year old waifs were replaced by a group of seven or eight hooded adults who followed us in silence. Every spare bit of wall space displayed a gallery of lovingly painted murals letting everyone know that this was the turf of Johnny Adair’s C Company of the Ulster Freedom Fighters. Cartoon men in balaclavas and combat jackets clutching their cartoon Armalites. The newest mural was to be found right at the bottom of the Shankill Rd. The whole wall of a brand spanking new Kentucky Fried Chicken drive through was emblazoned with C Company branding.

Welcome to West Belfast.

Twenty yards further on and we were off the Shankill and our hooded escorts stood in the rain and watched us make our way toward the City centre.

Some night.

Some introduction.

And what looked a good idea in theory seemed a whole lot different in practice.

The next few days offered more of the same. A contact in Portadown took us on a guided tour of the sectarian streets where the ghost of ‘King Rat’ Billy Wright stared out from the lovingly painted murals. There were flags hanging from every lamppost and the painted kerbstones marked territory. Union Jacks would suddenly stop and be replaced by Irish tricolours, mid street. Either side of these mini divides, the pebble dashed council houses looked just like the ones at home in Scotland. Every now and then our guide would point out the twenty foot high sheet metal 'peace' walls which separated the warring factions. Another non descript road turned out to be the notorious Garvachy Rd that dominated the news cycle every 12th of July when screaming Catholics would pelt bowler hatted marching Orangemen with anything they could pelt them with.  

Evening tours of Pordadown in the rain were clearly not something that were considered the norm and after a few minutes we had an armoured police Land Rover on our bumper. It filled the mirror and the message was clear; cars with Scottish number plates were not welcome to take in the sectarian sights of Portadown.

We tracked down the small police station in one horse Loughgall where 30 SAS troopers executed 8 members of the East Tyrone Brigade in 1987 and thereby helped Maggie Thatcher to her third termas PM. No wonder the Provos nicknamed her ‘Tinknickers’

We found the small village of Burntollet where the Civil Rights marchers had been beaten black and blue in January 1969.

We stood on the walls of Derry where the Apprentic Boys had withstood King James’s siege in 1690. Below lay the Bogside streets where the men of the Parachute Regiment gunned down 13 marchers on Bloody Sunday.

The brooding army fortress in the ‘badlands’ of Crossmaglen. The looming concrete watchtowers of Long Kesh prison. Milltown Cemetery. Watch towers on rainsoaked hills and murals on crumbling walls. Turf Lodge and Andytown and Ballymurphy and the Ardoyne and Rathcoole.

Names for thirty years of bad news. Now so very ordinary. So very day to day. British and Northern and lashed by constant rain. Like anywhere. Like home.

But wherever we went, our accents marked us down for the silent treatment because old habits die very hard after 700 years of hatred. Sure there was Peace, but there had been peace before.

I can’t say that I felt overly optimistic about my chances on the ferry back to the mainland.

Had I been a freelance journalist, I would indeed have stood little or no chance of being admitted into this strange and brooding closed world. But it is different when you are an author. For some reason people see authors as being different. Less threatening. Harmless.

So I made calls and I was granted meetings at the bottom of the ladder and slowly but surely the word was passed on that I was all right. Just a Brit author from Lancashire. And I managed to convince them that I had no axe to grind. No flag of choice. And I was believed.

After a few months I finally met the two guys who gave me an insight into what kind of men reach the top of the tree in the world of freedom fighting/terrorism. Because I was always going to arrive at that old chestnut. Impossible not to. The eternal division of opinion.

French Resistance – Heroic Freedom Fighters

IRA – Terrorist Scum

Muhajadeen – Heroic Freedom Fighters

Taliban – Terrorist Scum

Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara, Menachem Begin, Malcolm X….

It all depends on your point of view. When is blowing up a train a good thing and when is it a bad thing?

I was lucky enough to meet two guys from either side of the sectarian divide. Davide Ervine and Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane. Both had done many years behind the wire in ‘The Kesh’ and both had been branded by our media as being the worst of the worst. Bik in fact had once upon a time been the most wanted man in Britain having led the breakout of 38 IRA prison from the supposedly impregnable H Blocks in 1983. Now they were both political; David led the political wing of the UVF and was credited as being one of the key driving forces behind the 1998 Good Friday Agreement whilst Bik worked for Sinn Fein.

I found both to be thoughtful, quiet spoken, passionate, intelligent, humorous and thoroughly charming. They are in fact two of the most impressive men I have ever met and they made a deep impression on me.

When it was all done, they checked my manuscript and put me right where I had gone wrong. They gave me quotes for the back cover which was my proof that I was coming from neither side of the line.

The book was duly published and it flickered in the media for a while. It sold a few thousand copies and thankfully was well reviewed by Republican and Loyalist alike. Did it get anywhere close to finding that dark, unforgiving place where good men feel driven to do bad things? I hope so. Most readers seem to think it did.

And now? Is it merely a tale of dark days that have become little more than old news footage? I don’t think so. In almost every case the driving force behind good men taking up arms to fight a much stronger foe is injustice and inequality. The best definition I have ever heard of a terrorist? A man who throws a stone at a tank.

Our world is now as unjust and unequal as it has ever been and it gets more so with every passing year. It is hard not to imagine that more and more good, thoughtful, community rooted men like Bik and David will feel impelled to take up arms and fight back.

To endlessly brand such men as criminals, cowards and maniacs is in my view plain stupid. When the Taliban ambush one of our convoys in Helmand Province you can bet you bottom dollar that a minister will appear in front of the cameras to condemn such a cowardly attack. Cowardly? Is it really so cowardly to fire of your RPG on a Nato patrol when you know full well that an Apache helicopter or an F16 will appear within minutes to blow you into a million pieces?

And yet when we bomb a village from 20,000 feet it is deemed to be not cowardly at all.

It is a dark world where propaganda and perception are all. Bik and David helped me to understand it a little. I hope ‘Terrible Beauty’ manages to do the same.

Here is a link to a video of Bik talking about his Colditz-like escape from H Blocks of the Maze. Check it out. Does he sound like a maniac to you?

Monday, February 4, 2013

Thank God Twitter means the days bad stuff being hidden behind closed doors are over

I have to admit that when I set out to write a regular blog in the summer of 2012 I felt more than a little sceptical about the whole thing.

Ditto Twitter.

Those in the know were adamant that this is the way for wannabe authors to make themselves noticed and heard in the new digital world. Well, there was little doubt that my writing career had hit the bricks pretty big style. After twenty years, twenty novels sales and over 100,000 books sold, I was down to five sales a month. So it was basically a case of nowt to lose.

I duly dusted down a half forgotten blog page and bashed out a few hundred words.

Click; Save

Click: Publish

And a week later the statistics zone reported that of the nine billion souls living and breathing on our third rock from the sun, a princely total of eight had logged on to take a look.

The big time!

But if there is one thing you need to learn in the hurry if you want to tread the weary path of writing stuff, it is the art of ignoring endless slaps in the face. If at first you don’t succeed and all that.

And little by little the number of visits to this page started to ease up until one day in the autumn I began to understand what all the fuss was about. Two days before David Cameron got to his feet to finally own up to 23 three years of Hillsborough cover up and lies, I watched an ITV documentary which transported me back to those desperate hours on a sunny afternoon in Sheffield where 96 Liverpool fans died in the cages of the Leppings Lane End. I poured 23 three years of pent up rage into a blog and duly sent it out into the ether. All of a sudden it found wings and within 36 hours over 10,000 people had turned up at my page.

All of us who were there that day saw exactly what happened. And for years and years and years we felt muzzled and ignored. And of course when the traditional media by and large chose to back up the establishment view, then the rest of the world never got the chance to see our side of the story.

It became clear to me that everything had changed as the blog bounced around the world. It was the moment that I finally got it. This whole thing is a means to put the kind of inconvenient truth the establishment loves to keep buried right out into the light for anyone to look at.

No wonder the thousands who took to the streets of Tehran when Ahmadinejad stole their election fell hook, line and sinker for Twitter. After so many years of living in the claustrophobic darkness of a totalitarian state, at last they had been granted the means to show the rest of the world what was going down. For the first time they were able to film the brutality of the regime’s thugs on their mobile phones and send the images out for the rest of us to watch. This came at a time when reporters were camped at the border and denied access to what was happening. The crackdown was being snapped into the place and the Ayatollahs assumed that once again they would make sure their cold brutality would be played out behind closed doors. Of course there would be rumours and whispers, but no hard proof.

Well, the men with the big beards were in for the shock of their lives as jumping videos of the clampdown were beamed across the world care of Twitter and there wasn’t a thing they could do about it.

Imagine if such technology had been available on 9 Novemeber 1938 when Hitler sent his goons out to smash every Jewish face and window they could find. That night, Germany’s pavements were coated in broken glass and Jewish blood.

It was to become known as ‘The night of Broken Glass’: Kristallnacht.

1000 synagogues burned to the ground. 7000 Jewish businesses smashed up. 91 Jews murdered. 30,000 Jews hurled onto back of trucks and packed off to concentration camps.

There were no reporters to record the moment when Hitler revealed his true demonic colours. Kristallnacht was a vicious drama performed behind closed doors. The rest of the world heard rumours and chose to ignore them. It all seemed way too far fetched. We turned a blind eye because it made things easier. There would be no way that a modern day Hitler could get away with their version of Kristallnacht today. Within minutes, Twitter would be awash with videos of the Blackshirts carrying out their pavement beatings.
We could tune in to the hard reality of what it looks like when an old man is hammered with iron bars by two or three fit young men with faces all twisted up in racial hate.
We could tune in to the sight of small groups of policemen standing by sipping their coffees and having a laugh as a tailor and his family are dragged from their burning shop and loaded onto a truck.
And would our leaders dare to try and persuade us that Hitler really isn’t such a bad sort of chap really? I don’t think so.

The days of evil deeds being carried out in secret behind closed doors are well and truly over. If we there had been mobile phones and Twitter back in April 1989, there is no way in a million years that the Hillsborough cover up would have stuck. There is no way that Kelvin McKenzie would have dared print his filthy lies on the front page of the Sun. The truth would have been out there for everyone to see within minutes. There is an awful lot wrong with the way that our world is turning out at the moment and things promise to get much worse before they look up. However the fact that Twitter ensures that Kristallnacht 2 would be an impossible secret to keep is a thing that we should wholeheartedly celebrate.

So what has any of this got to do with the picture of our volunteer Lesley-Anne and her Lidl carrier bag? Well I refer regular visitors to the site to my blog of last week where I told the story of a Barnados marketing type telling me that it would be inappropriate for their iconic Brand to be associated with our food parcels. Basically they refused to sell us 2500 carrier bags at 9p each because having their name linked to giving food to hungry people would somehow taint their treasured public image. To get the full and tawdry tale, any new visitors can curser down the page.

For some years, the antics of the new super charities have been a constant bug bear to small outfits like ours. They behave like arrogant bullies and they seem to have borrowed their play book from the multinational corporations. They like to have ritzy offices in the heart of London and they pay their swaggering Chief Execs six figure salaries. When they blag themselves a slot on the news, they are always well rehearsed to seem all concerned and caring. Behind closed doors, they are a very different animal. They like to employ sharp suited characters to hang out in the tearooms of Holyrood and Westminster to whisper in the ears of politicians. They drip feed the idea that small charities are well meaning but not really up the mark. They whisper the message that tax payer’s cash should only ever be given to charities which have overflowing admin departments rammed full of filing cabinets filled to bursting with jargon ridden policies on everything from health and safety to how to handle grievances from a member of staff from the disabled, transsexual, asylum seeking community. And slowly but surely, they managed to convince the politicians to keep on raising the bar to a place where small frontline charities wouldn’t stand a chance of ticking all the required boxes to get some tax payer’s cash. For years they have hoovered up most of the cash and small charities have been bled dry. We have been the corner shops and they have been the supermarkets.

And whenever any of us has tried to complain, we have been brushed aside by well oiled PR Departments and Media machines. How dare we? These are beloved institutions! National Treasures! They have Royalty and the Beckhams turning out at their fundraisers.

Well thank God for Twitter. Sometimes a blog finds wings and sometimes a blog makes like a damp squib. Thankfully my blog about my call with the Barnados marketing type grew a pair of wings and within two days I had a reporter from the local paper on the phone.

Can we run the story? You bet you can.

And they did. On page three. And surprise, surprise nobody from Barnados was available for comment.

Last night I was invited to a local church where 25 volunteers turned out on a cold winter's night to see what they could do to help us with our food parcel project. It transpired that every last one of them had read the article in the local paper and they were less than amused at the overbearing attitude shown by Barnado's. This certainly wasn't the Barnado's as described on the tin.

Of course, the insufferable attitude of some woman from Essex representing a charity that has left its roots far, far behind is absolutely nothing when compared to the brutality of the Iranian secret police or the Gestapo. It is nothing when compared to the 23 year cover up put in place by the top brass of the South Yorkshire Police. Of course it isn’t. But the principal is there all the same. Only a few short years ago, this small piece of evidence of a large charity behaving like a swaggering corporation would have stayed firmly behind closed doors. It would have happened and then disappeared without trace.

Instead it ended up on page three of the paper.

Three cheers to that!