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, August 27, 2013


‘Red or Dead’ by David Peace tells the story of the great Bill Shankly coming to Anfield and becoming a legend. It is a completely weird book, but most of David Peace’s books tend to stray into the world of weirdness. This time he is intent on reducing every single sentence down to the very bare bones of simplicity. Bill got into his car. Bill started the engine. Bill checked his blind spot. Bill drove to Anfield…. On and on it goes, for page after page until it passes through the seven hundred page mark. Wow. He lists every one of the games Shankly managed. He gives the scores and when the goals were scored. He gives the crowd and sometimes he describes the weather and how muddy the pitch was.

Game after game. Year after year. Different players. Different teams. Different opposition teams. Ups and downs. And of course that is the point. The whole point. For in the end football can be seen as being a bit like a river. It flows on and on from season to season. It never stops. In the end there are only subtle differences. We have a river here flowing past the house and down and away to the Solway Firth. Sometimes it is full to bank bursting when it has pissed down for days. Sometimes it is a mere trickle during rare heat waves. Sometimes there’s a heron fishing. Sometimes the early morning sun picks out the vivid colours of a kingfisher. But the water always flows. It’s a gravity thing. Day in day out. Year in year out.

This is how Peace sees the relentlessness of football. Different characters flit in and flit out, but the game goes on and on as unforgettable triumphs drift into treasured history.

Would I have made it through all 700 pages had the book been about a different man and a different team? No chance. But it is my team and my man and my life. It gave me a shiver when all of a sudden I reached the moment on April Fool’s Day 1972 when West Brom came to Anfield. Liverpool won 2-0. 46,000 turned up to bear witness. It was the first time I ever stepped into Anfield. I was eleven and a half and the minute I reached the top of the steps and looked into the swaying masses of the Kop I knew I never wanted to go and watch football anywhere else.

And I never have.

And of course Shanks was still in charge back then and the Kop sang his name over and over to the tune of Amazing Grace.

Before ‘Red or Dead’, my memories of his retiring were a little vague. I recall being on the Kop when he came along and stood with the rest of us. I recall the hints and rumours that all was not well with him. I recall getting a sneak preview of Hillsbrough when the cops lost control of the crowds trying to get into the Kop before they locked the gates when we played Swansea on the Saturday after he died.

‘Red or Dead’ becomes almost unbearable when it describes the slow misery of his retirement. The way the club betrayed him. Dumped him. Hung him out to dry. For me this was when the book was at its most brilliant. It depicts an increasingly sad man confronted by a world going to hell all around him. The club he gave his life to doesn’t want to know him any more. The unions he was raised to trust implicitly are bringing the country to its knees. There is suddenly open war on the terraces and Liverpool the city is being reduced to a sad shell of its former glory.

And yet the river of football flows on and the Reds at last conquer Europe. Once and twice and three times. And in the end of course Bill dies as the author hints at the fact that the streets outside the hospital are all on fire as the city has been swallowed up by riots.

On many levels the book was a painful read. It was painful as the endless repetition of the same thing drove me to distraction. It was painful as the passage of football time marked the passage of my own time. Inexorably. Where on earth did that wide eyed eleven year old kid disappear to? Painful in the way it draws a picture of the slow death of the hope that socialism once upon a time offered until Maggie Thatcher killed it stone dead. In those lost days of the late seventies and early eighties I was never a socialist. I wasn’t anything. I was a punk! It took the miserable age of Thatcherism to bring me round to the idea that socialism was maybe the best way to run a railroad. But then the dream was hijacked by Derek Hatton and Tony Blair and now it lives and breathes no more.

Shankly was very much an old school socialist. One of a breed that seems to have gone extinct. Men from the mills and the mines and shipyards. Men with a steel rod of morality running through their spines and souls. Men like Jock Stein and Matt Busby and Brian Clough and of course Sir Alex. Men who have now all been left behind in our new world of Nike and fifty quid to sit on the Kop.

Most painful of all was the way the book picked over the bones of the club tossing him aside like a worn out pair of shoes. In 1984 I got the chance to meet Bob Paisley. At the time my dad held the glamorous position of secretary of the Lancashire Egg Producers Club. I know. You couldn’t make it up. Every month it was dad’s job to book an after dinner speaker.

So he pushed the boat out and tracked down Bob Paisley’s home number. By this time Bob was a few months retired with three European Cups in the bag. He was delighted at the prospect of speaking to a room full of Lancastrian chicken farmers. His fee was somewhere in the region of £50 and his terms included having someone to drive him to and from Liverpool so that he could have a few whiskies. Oh, and he insisted on a free bar.

I got the taxi driver’s job. Unsurprisingly I was just about as nervous as I have been in my life. After all, this was the most successful manager in the history of British football and if you use number of European Cups won as a benchmark, then he still is. His house was a wholly ordinary bungalow in a non-descript suburb and he turned out to be one of the nicest blokes I have ever met. He was more than happy to talk football all the way from Liverpool to Chorley and all the way back again.

In hindsight I can see that there was a touch of sadness about him. Retirement had brought no place on the board and he was seldom seen about Anfield in the years before his death in 1996.

Sadly there is a trend here. A miserable and sickening trend. Liverpool Football Club is one of the world’s greatest sports institutions. There are reasons why 95,000 people turned up at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch a pre season friendly, every single one of them in a red shirt. There are reasons why north of fifty million people across the planet name Liverpool when asked who they support. The reasons are Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish. Great, great men. All three. And yet all three were unceremoniously dumped by the owners of the club when they were deemed to be of no more use.

When I read about how Shanks was shunted out into the cold, I realised that our currant owners are in fact no different from the men who held the purse strings back in 1974. For a club that has always exuded such class, it really is quite sickening that we always get landed with such owners. When Matt Busby and Sir Alex retired, they were given a place on the board alongside Bobby Charlton. And in the beating heart of Mordor, there is a stand called ‘The Alex Fergusson Stand.’

We have four stands at Anfield. The Kop of course can only ever be called the Kop. But what of the other three? The Main Stand, the Centenary Stand and the Anfield Road Stand? How important are those names? Not remotely. These three stands should each bear very different names. The Bill Shankly Stand. The Bob Paisley Stand. The Kenny Dalglish Stand. Surely it's a no brainer. And I find it hard to imagine that a single one of our fifty million fans would have a problem with three sides of the stadium carrying the names of the men who made us what we are. And yet hell would freeze over before the people who own the club would do such a thing. For of course they no doubt harbour unspoken ambitions to rename the terraces the McDonalds Stand and the Kentucky Fried Chicken Stand and the Coca Cola Stand.

Anyway. In a few hours time I will set out on the all too familiar 300 mile hundred round trip to watch Liverpool FC take on Notts County FC in the second round of the League Cup. And my money will be shunted across the Atlantic into an account somewhere in New England. And at some stage the Kop will sing the name of Kenny Dalglish but the man himself will not be there to acknowledge the chant. The man himself doesn’t feel welcome at Anfield any more. Just like Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley before him. Just like all of those who grew up to follow the team through thick and thin and wind and rain only to be priced out of going to the match.

Lots has changed since a wide eyed eleven year old lad stepped into Anfield and gasped at the sight of the swaying Kop. The river of football has flowed on much like the river of life. Shanks wouldn’t like much about the way the world has moved on and changed. The Peoples Game is the Peoples Game no more. How can it be when it costs £50 to sit on the Kop?

In the end ‘Red or Dead’ made me feel sad and nostalgic. Sad for the man and sad for the way things now are and sad for a dream that was crushed.

Crushed with corporate contempt, until all that is left is a memory and a sense of loss.

There is much more f this kind of stuff to be found in my book 'King Kenny's Revolution'. You can find it in the Kindle Store by following the link below.


Saturday, August 17, 2013


Sometimes hard times can help the emergence of great people and great ideas. Out of the Great Depression of the 30’s came Roosevelt and the New Deal. The wretched wrecked cities of post war Europe were rebuilt and re-energised by the Marshall Plan. The vicious race hate of Sixties America brought forward Martin Luther King in much the same way as the worst of Apartheid South Africa brought forth the very best of humankind in the shape of Nelson Mandela.

Sadly the worst of times also have a habit of spawning the worst of men and ideas. The murderous mayhem of the Russian Civil War provided a platform for Stalin to rise to the top. Our very own Civil War gave us our very own version of Uncle Joe Stalin in the shape of Oliver Cromwell. The Great Depression of the 30’s persuaded the Germans to choose Hitler.

Right now the UK seems to be neither one thing nor the other. Even his fiercest critics would find it hard to equate the easy going, hard smoking Nigel Farage with Hitler. Likewise, even the Daily Mail would find it hard to make a case that Ed Milliband represents the heir to Vladimir Illyich Lenin.

Instead we have nasty, mediocre leaders who are being egged on by a nasty, mediocre media. And there seems to be a veritable army of hundreds of thousands nasty, mediocre beaurocrats ready and eager to their bidding. These denizens of hideous grey people with their Ford Mondeos and fondue sets and lovingly treasured pension plans are always at the very heart of state sponsored nastiness.

They were the ones who ran the timetables of the trains that carried millions to the gas chambers of Poland. They were the ones who processed Stalin’s kill lists in 1937. They were the ones who help make sure that Saddam Hussein always kept Abu Graib prison full to bursting point.

It is a tragic human fact that the work of despots is always made easy by the complicity and willingness of these nasty, grey people who will do almost anything for a pension pot and the chance of a bungalow in Bournemouth.

Regular readers of this blog will have become very familiar with this kind of thing over the last year or so. Almost all of the hardship we see at First Base is caused by nasty, spiteful decisions made by nasty, spiteful people who are getting a real kick out of doing the dirty work for old Etonians in the Ivory Towers of Westminster.

It has now become common knowledge that all the staff at Job Centre Plus have to meet the target of sanctioning three clients a week. And in our very British way, we simply take it as written that the beaurocrats we pay for through our taxes will always do exactly as instructed.

Like sheep.

Like the grey pen pushers who ran the well oiled machine that funnelled five million doomed souls into the gas chambers in the 40’s. The kind of genocide that Hitler oversaw doesn’t just happen. To make sure a daily quota of 10,000 warm bodies arrive on time at the Birkenau railway sidings all the way from Budapest, you need a huge team of dedicated and capable beurocrats. Hitler knew he had such a team. And he knew they would do exactly as they were told, no matter how primordially horrific the results of their typing and filing turned out to be.

Well, George Osborne and his cronies in the civil service and the tabloid media also have an army of servile beaurocrats at their beck and call as they wage their nasty war on the poor.

Every day we see the results of this nasty mean spirited war. Every day we hand out food parcel after food parcel to poor sods who have turned up a few minutes late for an appointment or failed to tick an on screen box. Yesterday I spent some time chatting with a lad who had just been sanctioned for six months. Six months for Christ’s sake! It was his third offence. Ten minutes late for two appointments and a box left un-ticked on his personalised online Jobseekers account page.

The Job Centre person had a choice. They could have simply said oops the daisy…. looks like you forgot to tick the box here …look  .. this one…, hang on a sec…. we can sort that out here and now… there you go… all ticked… all done…

But they didn’t.

Instead they gleefully took advantage of the opportunity the small print presented them. Ah ha!!! You haven’t ticked the box! And subsection 5.21 demands that the box is ticked. By not ticking the box you are in contravention of the terms of subsection 5.21 and I have no choice but to sanction you for the next six months. Next! …Now young man… If you use that tone of voice with me I will call security and make sure an additional six months sanction is added on…….

Over the last few weeks we have been wrapped up a bit of small print tyranny ourselves which has finally wound me up to the stage of penning this ranting blog. The next paragraph promises to be bit on the dull side but it is essential if I am to paint the background picture.

Part of our First Base Veterans Project is helping guys to go self employed to make a living. We try our best to generate contracts with local agencies to give them paid work. Our main contract is with the region’s largest social landlord, DGHP, and a part of this work involves the lads undertaking tasks for tenants who are struggling or vulnerable. In March I received an e mail from a veteran in his eighties. He told me that the time had come when he couldn’t manage on his own any more and he was being moved into supported accommodation. His problem was that he had no way of shifting his stuff and no money to pay anyone to shift it. So I called up DGHP to ask if they would engage the services of the lads to the job and they said they would.

So all went well and the stuff was duly shifted and all three guys shared a morning of squaddie banter that crossed the generations.

At the supported accommodation was one of those automatic doors which made it hard to shift stuff in an out. There was a hook on the door and a catch on the wall. So the lads slotted the hook into the catch and duly shifted the stuff from van to room. Then they unhooked the door and the door worked as normal.

Then they made a second trip.

When they got back the cleaner was standing on a chair and faffing around with the opening mechanism at the top of the door. They thought nothing of it and shifted the rest of the stuff. From van to room. Job done and the old boy was delighted, though a little daunted at the cold, off hand reception he had received from everyone at his new home. Our lads were quite upset about it.

So that was that.

Except it wasn’t.

A couple of weeks later I received a frantic e mail from the old boy. He had received a letter from Hanover Housing, the warm and caring charity to whom he had signed up to spend the rest of his life.

In the letter was a bill for £184 for damage done to the door to the property by workmen in his employ.

I replied and told him not to worry and that I would look into it. So I rang the property and spoke with the cleaner and she was as stroppy as it is possible for a cleaner to be. She posted me a copy of the bill and a copy of the report of the engineer who had been called out to fix the door. The report said that when the engineer had arrived at the job he had discovered that the arms of the automatic door had been disengaged. This came as no surprise to us as the lads had seen the cleaner up on a chair faffing around with the disengaged mechanism. The engineer connected it all back up and the door was up and running again. The call out charge was £184 including VAT.

So I told her that we were not responsible and she said that we were.

So I called Hanover Housing’s head office in Edinburgh.

About 15 times.

And every time I called I seemed to get a different woman on the phone and all of them were as stroppy as stroppy can be,

At last I got through to someone senior and she told me that their position was carved in stone. Our lads had busted the door. Their cleaner was the most morally upright person in the whole of South West Scotland. Our lads were obviously lying through their teeth.

And so it became very clear that we were poles apart. Our guys were adamant that the cleaner was lying and their cleaner was adamant that our lads were lying.

All of this is absolutely fair enough. It happens all the time. I said as much to the senior person on the phone. What I also pointed out was that none of it had anything whatsoever to do with the old veteran whose stuff we had shifted.

I made what I felt was a perfectly reasonable request. I suggested that the argument was clearly between First Base and Hanover Housing. Neither of us were about to change our minds. It was clear that we had reached a peace in the Middle East situation where neither side was about to budge and lines had been drawn in the sand.

So here’s what I proposed.

Take the old boy out of the equation. Stop causing him misery and stress by hounding him with letter after letter demanding £184 which he hasn’t got.

Invoice us direct. And we will refuse to pay. And them Hanover Housing can crack on and take The First Base Agency to the small claims court for £184. And then the court will have the chance to decide which side was lying and which side is liable for the £184 damage done to the door.

But that was too much like hard work. It became clear that Hanover Housing didn’t much fancy putting their cleaner on the stand to argue the toss against our two guys. Instead they decided to hide behind the small print of the old boy’s tenancy agreement which stated that he was liable for any damage done by contractors under his employ.

Basically they took the option of hounding and bullying a very vulnerable old guy who had once upon a time served his country with distinction.

So I kept getting frantic e mails for the old guy. And I kept replying and telling him not to pay the bill under any circumstances. And in the end I took the thing to Alex Fergusson MSP who is one of the absolute good guys. Surely a call from a Member of the Scottish Parliament who for several years had been the Convenor would persuade Hanover Housing to do the decent thing and leave the old lad be.

Fat chance.

They evaded his calls.

And they continued to hide behind their poxy small print and put a vulnerable old fellow under continued stress. You can Google them and check out their mission statement in the ‘About Us’ section. It is all very warm and cuddly and politically correct.

If only.

And no doubt there are many people at Hanover Housing who indeed put the care and well being of their vulnerable tenants before a lousy £184. But there are obviously many others who see the world in a very different way to the soft words of their Mission Statement. There are others who are more than happy to make an old guy’s life a misery because the small print allows them to.


Bullies who should be ashamed of themselves.

Small print tyrants in every sense.  

Can you here the quiet, ghostly sound of train wheels clanking their way along the rail tracks of Upper Silesia.

Journeys scheduled and logged and accounted for by the grey ones.

By small print tyrants.

By small print cockroaches.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Slowly but surely the pieces of the jigsaw that will at some stage turn into my next book are slotting into place. I reckon I have a title now, though past experience suggests that titles tend to change many times by the time the final full stop is in its place. As of now, the thing is down to be called ‘A Flickering Flame’ and it will run from 1905 to a couple of years in the future.

I have always held a fascination for the small moments in time which suddenly turn history on its axis; moments like the tiny fragment of rock which falls onto a bank of snow to kick off an avalanche which twenty minutes later wipes out a whole town.

The fascination extends to the places where these key moments played out. Like the steps in front of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King made a speech which ensured than nothing could ever be the same again. Or the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign over the gates of Auschwitz. Or the non-descript looking concrete bridge that spans the Rhine at Arnhem. Or the deserted and overgrown white walled slave fort on an island in the River Gambia.
Every day at First Base we bear witness to the quiet and often toxic fallout from events that for a few brief moments appeared on the news and then faded to black. Such echoes can be found in the washed out eyes of the veterans who seek support. A sniper kill on the Ballymurphy Estate in 1975. A screaming teenager with no kneecaps on a grimy pavement in the Bogside.  A family of corpses on the floor of a Bosnian kitchen. Pieces of Argentinian soldier in the muddy bogs of Mount Longden. Snapshots of events from years and years ago which the world has long moved on from and forgotten. Seldom glanced at pages of Wikipedia. But for those who were involved, those desperate seconds and minutes and hours and days remain sharp focused and as painful as a rope burn.

Three of the characters in the early stages of ‘A Flickering Flame’ see everything they hold certain and clear changed forever in a few desperate hours on 25 September 1915 in a small French coal mining village called Loos.

For some reason I cannot really explain, the Battle of Loos has always held a fascination for me ever since I read of it in Robert Graves’s ‘Goodbye to All That’ as a teenager. It is odd how forgotten it has become as history has settled on its memories of the First War.

There was much that was momentous about Loos. It was the first time that the Brits and our allies launched a major offensive against the German lines and it was the first time that we started to learn the lesson that human flesh against high velocity machine gun bullets represents a pretty unfair fight.

We had our own special weapon that day: chlorine gas. In the days before the battle, thousands of unwieldy gas canisters were lugged up the support trenches and put in place on the front line. The theory was simple. The weather forecast promised a wind that would shove the released gas across no-man’s land and into the German trenches. Chlorine gas is heavier than air and so the idea was that the gas cloud would roll along the ground and then drop down into the trenches and bunkers and gun emplacements of the enemy.

Well, it all looked pretty good on paper but things usually do. By four in the morning it was clear that things were not about to go as planned. The wind had changed during the night and now a slow breeze was easing its way down from the German held high ground and over the lines of British trenches.

So it was a no brainer. Cancel the attack and wait for the right wind conditions. But the High Command didn’t see it that way and they ordered the gas to be released at the appointed time regardless of the direction of the breeze. The idiotic order was duly followed and the gas made its way into the British support trenches and lots of our guys were killed. The frontline soldiers responded to the whistles and jumped up to be duly chopped down by the German guns.

Lots of guys died. Lots of guys were horribly wounded. Lots of guys were mentally shattered.

A few yards were gained and then given up the next day.

Everybody blamed everybody else and it was generally agreed that the gas masks our lads had been issued weren’t worth a light. Here are a couple of pictures. It is hard to get your head around the vision of hell that must have come to Loos as thousands of guys in these masks emerged from their trenches coughing and choking amidst green clouds of chlorine.

My fictional characters will watch the fiasco from the German lines. And when the day’s fighting is over, nothing will ever be the same again.

So a couple of days ago, it was time to see what the place is like now. We followed the SatNav down the French autoroutes past Lille and past Lens until the twin slag heaps that gloomily stare down on the village of Loos appeared on the horizon. The whole area is a typical coal mining area. Slag heaps and faded villages and towns and a sense of wasted lives and boarded up shops. These days such places are described as the ‘Post-Industrial West. Detroit and Pittsburg and Motherwell and Leipzig and Turin. Places where the shells of once mighty factories are now crumbling away to mere piles of bricks. On the day of the battle, the ground was dominated by a vast double coal winch which the Brit soldiers nicknamed ‘London Bridge’ because of its resemblance to the iconic Thames crossing. The old winching gear was well and truly trashed during the battle but it was replaced after the war. Here’s what it looked like back then.

The coal mine is still there. Well, what was once a coal mine is still there. Now just a clutch of looming empty buildings surrounded by overgrown mounds of earth. Only a few years ago, thousands of men must have walked and driven up the hill from the village to start their shifts. Not any more. The mine at Loos is now very much post-industrial. There are lots of wild flowers and butterflies and a long view across the plain to the distant sea. There is a garden centre. There is a community theatre. There are some small workshops. But there were no people. Just a couple of distant figures framed on the skyline as they climbed the steep gradient of one of the twin pyramid shaped slag heaps. Even after all these years nothing but the barest of shrubs can grow on the toxic mountains of poisoned earth. In the 50's my dad was part of a Leeds University project to try and identify plants which could thrive on slag. It doesn't seem as if much progress has been made if the slag heaps of Loos are anything to go by.

What a place to end up it must have seemed for the thousands of soldiers on both sides. The Germans held the high ground and dug their deep trenches and concrete machine gun emplacements. The main complex was known as the Hohenzollen Redoubt and it proved to be predictably impregnable. The Brits lined up on the plain and had to attack up a steep hill in the shadow of the slag heaps and the pit itself.

No doubt the whole area would have been poisoned and polluted and stained by coal dust. Grey fields. Grey woods. Grey houses. Grey faces. A grey, industrial, polluted misery of a place. And early in the morning fifty thousand of so men released clouds of green chlorine gas and donned gas masks and marched at fifty thousand of so other guys who watched from the top of the hill.

And then over the days and weeks that followed, thousands of postmen took telegrams to thousands of front doors in towns and cities and villages in England and Scotland and Wales and Ireland and India and Canada and Germany. The ultimate bearers of bad news. The worst news. Thousands lost for a few yards gained.

In September 1915, Loos held the world’s attention for a while. But not any more. Not for a long time now. I wonder why? The obvious and usual reasons I guess. History is always written by the victors and we as victors have obviously decided we would rather not dwell on the fact that we released all that chlorine gas on the morning of 25 September 1915 and that the chlorine gas we released killed a whole bunch of our own guys in their unfit for purpose gas masks.

So now Loos is one of those forgotten places. Once upon a time there was a battle. Once upon a time there was a coal mine. Once upon a time there were jobs. Once upon a time there was a great killing.

And now?

Old buildings. A winch that hasn’t turned a wheel in years. Wildflowers. A soft wind. A pair of slag heaps. The distant hum of traffic on the motorway. Cars in the car park of the garden centre. A couple of dog walkers. A community theatre in the old engine house which is closed until September.

And thousands upon thousands of ghosts. Ghosts from Prussia and Saxony and Bavaria and Westphalia and Lancashire and Yorkshire and Fife and County Antrim and Punjab and Ontario.

Quiet ghosts.

Wikipedia ghosts.

Forgotten ghosts.

Faded memories now. Part of what we now call the Post-Industrial West.

Ghosts who we visited last week.

Soon I will try and capture the look and feel and smell of those long forgotten desperate hours and those hours will become a part of ‘A Flickering Flame’.

Standing there by the old, quiet coal mine I wondered how the ghosts would feel about it? Who knows? Do they want to be remembered or forgotten? Or do they not care at all?

They gave no clue.

Only the hint of a memory in a soft summer wind.    


Thursday, August 1, 2013


The word on the street at the moment suggests that there is a turf war going down for the control of the drugs market in the North West of Dumfries. There are two gangs fighting it out and both have travelled many miles to wage their war. Maybe it is sensible to avoid too many specifics here. Let’s say that these charming individuals hail from two of Britain’s great port cities which once upon a time provided the gateway to our Empire; cities which have now hit harder times. One lies some 120 miles to the south of Dumfries. The other is 80 miles to the north. I am sure you get the picture.

The word on the street is that these raiders have turned up in town with guns and the police are all over the situation like a rash. Let’s hope so. We’ve had a major drug problem here in Dumfries for years, but thankfully guns have seldom played any part in proceedings. Long may that continue.

Much more interesting than the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ is surely the ‘why?’. Let’s face it, on the surface of things it is a pretty big ‘why?’ Dumfries is anything but a boom town. Once upon a time we were a thriving market town serving a booming and luxuriant stretch of productive farmland. Those days are long gone. Unemployment is sky high and prospects are lower than the Atlantic Trench. Dumfries is typical of so many towns all across the post industrial western world; places where coal was once mined or cotton spun or steel smelted or ships built. Over a span of a hundred years or so, all such activity moved away to the East and these places have become pretty well pointless with vast Tesco stores filling the space where factories and coal mines and ship yards once provided a living to thousands. Nowadays the public sector and benefits drive what is left of the economy and of course both are being cut to the bone.

North West Dumfries is home to four sprawling areas of what we now call ‘social housing’. Around 20,000 people live there. The Government up in Edinburgh considers the area to be ‘less favoured’ and therefore eligible for additional financial support. Many locals love to tell war stories about how bad things are, but all this really goes to show is that they have never visited the likes of Croxteth or Moss Side or Peckham.

A fictional Dumfries provides the backdrop for several of my novels and much of the excitement is to be found in a scheme that I call Sunnybank Estate. There has always been a degree of debate about which of the four schemes of NW Dumfries is the real life Sunnybank. Time and again I have pointed out that Sunnybank is entirely a figment of my imagination, but nobody seems much interested in listening. In my stories, drugs being used, abused and dealt tends to play a pretty large role. This is hardly surprising as I have spent the last ten years of my life at First Base which has provided a frontline view of the desperate underworld that illegal drugs inevitably creates.

For years the local wisdom has been adamant that NW Dumfries is full of ‘junkies’. This is unduly harsh as it suggests that people who are born and raised in the four schemes are somehow genetically engineered to become depended on heroin’s warm embrace. This of course is the very worst of prejudiced nonsense. However there can be no denying the fact that there are an unusually high number of drug addicts to be found in the area. The reason for this is down to stuff that Adam Smith would have been more than familiar with: good old fashioned supply and demand.

Over the last 15 years or so, the local cops have had a number of highly successful clampdowns in many of the region’s smaller towns. Dealers have been rounded up and locked up thanks to a number of well co-ordinated dawn raids. A few years ago ‘Operation Emperor’ rendered Stranraer virtually drug free. Not a single dealer was left to ‘punt kit’ once the doors had been knocked off their hinges at five in the morning. But that was only half the story. At the time of ‘Emperor’ there were about 600 heroin users in Stranraer and they were all left hanging on the wire and desperate for a hit. Some rattled and gave up. Some were slotted onto the Methadone programme. A majority, maybe 400 of so, migrated east to the nearest place where heroin was still on sale; Dumfries.

They came to town and declared themselves homeless and spent time in the hostels. Eventually the Section 5 Referral rule meant that they were offered tenancies and these tenancies were invariably to be found in the four schemes of North West Dumfries. Over the years the same thing happened several more times as successful police clampdowns created new migrations.

So, yes. There are indeed a higher than normal number of drug addicts to be found in NW Dumfries, but most were not born and bred. So how many? A rough guess would suggest somewhere in the region of 750. Most are now on the Methadone programme and they have been on the green stuff for a while. They don’t tend to commit so much crime as they did a few years ago for the simple reason that crime is harder to commit. There are many fewer shops to shoplift these days and ones who still hang on have sheets full of pictures highlighting the faces of those with multiple convictions for drug related theft. The harsh truth is that the 750 are not as young as they once were. Heroin addiction is very much yesterday’s news. The last couple of generations of youngsters have been way too smart to get suckered into a life of endless rattling and drudgery. Those who are left on the books of the drugs trade are in their thirties and forties now. Their health is poor and fading. Most are mere shells of the people they once were. They hobble around with leg ulcers and fade quietly away with Hepatitis C. They lack the energy for a crime wave. In their own words, most have become ‘Giro Junkies’. They drift through empty day after empty day care of high doses of Methadone and daytime TV, and once a fortnight they treat themselves to two or three ‘bags’ of smack when their fairy godmother in the Department of Work and Pensions drops £120 of so into their bank accounts.

So why on earth would two aspiring gangs from far away have any interest in travelling so far to fight it out for the franchise to sell this group of lost souls their fortnightly trip to oblivion?

I reckon the answer might well be found in the new Universal Credit which is set to be trialled here in the autumn. Universal Credit is very much the love child of many bright young things who took the journey from public school to Oxford and a shining degree in PPE. Then it was a couple of years of unpaid bag carrying for a junior minister or shadow minister. A place in central office and a seat at the table in the think tanks and focus groups. Next would be the chance to fight a no hope Parliamentary seat where they could demonstrate an ability to tow the party line, say the right things, bubble over with enthusiasm and look good for the cameras. Then at last they were rewarded with a safe seat in the mother of all Parliaments. This new career path has nothing to do with any particular party, though Eton seems to provide an unusually high number of Tory bright young things.
Westminster is now dominated by these evangelically power dressed types and we are about suffer as a result of their born again certainties. These are people for whom the theory is everything. They have an image of the poor that is part Dickens, part Walt Disney, part ‘praise the Lord Ohio style’ and part tabloid loathing. They have never spent any of their sheltered lives in places like NW Dumfries and they have no conception of what makes such places tick.

And so they have come up with Universal Credit. Give these poor people some responsibility they cry. Let them pay their own rent and council tax bills like other hard working, law abiding citizens. Trust them. Make them self reliant. Hell, make them like proper Americans with a new ‘can do’ mentality and church for all on a Sunday morning.

Oh dear.

Right now most of the 750 addicts up in NW Dumfries get their benefits in three separate chunks. £240 a month goes into their bank account. About £300 a month heads into the bank account of their social landlord in the form of Housing Benefit to keep a roof over their heads. About £70 a month or so heads straight into the account of the local council as Council Tax Benefit.

The recipient therefore only ever gets a chance to spend £240 of the £610 that is paid out on their behalf.

Well, all of that is about to change and change in a big way. The bright young things have decided that the best thing for poor people is if they are given the responsibility to look after their own affairs. To be given the responsibility of paying their own bills. This is going to raise them up and give them self assurance and enable them to get jobs and credit cards and spend lots of money on the High St and thereby rescue the country from its decline.

Dumfries and Galloway has volunteered itself to be one of the guinea pig regions to see how the brave new world looks in real time.

Let’s have a look at a few sums. Right now the 750 addicts of NW Dumfries have £2.16 million a year to spend with the Drugs Trade care of the DWP. In October that figure is about to grow significantly as the new Universal Credit will put a further £3.33 million on the table.

It’s a fair chunk of cash. And whenever a chunk of cash like this comes available for the grabbing, organised crime gangs tend to be pretty quick off the mark. How many ‘Giro Junkies’ are to be found in the UK as a whole? A conservative guess would suggest about a quarter of a million and the majority live in cities where the housing benefits cover much higher rents than NW Dumfries. Let’s make the maths relatively easy. Let’s assume that the new Universal Credits will deliver up and additional £500 a month to the ‘Giro Junkies’ of Britain. £6000 a year. Multiplied by 250,000.


We’re talking a cool £1.5 billion and that is a serious chunk of cash in anyone’s terms. You can get a whole bunch of villas by the sun kissed waters of the Caribbean with that kind of cash.

So it kind of looks like we are going to have two trials running up in NW Dumfries in the autumn.  All those bright young people with their PPE degrees will be watching to see if the beleaguered poor are transformed into highly motivated go getters who will set the High St alight. And the hard bitten execs at the top of the drugs industry will be finding ways to ensure that every penny of the new money on the table finds its way into their pockets. If you have watched ‘The Wire’, at this point it is maybe worth picturing Stringer Bell with calculator in hand and a calculating look on his face. It’s the Stringer with his glasses on look.

It seems pretty obvious to me who will win out. The guys who run the drugs trade know exactly how things play out in the schemes and sink estates of Britain. Their business model will be magnificently simple.

  1. Find out exactly how much Universal Credit a punter is going to receive.
  2. Find out where they live.
  3. Find out the day when they get paid.
  4. Give them a credit line up to the amount of cash they will be getting.
  5. On the day, accompany them to the bank or cash machine and take possession of every penny.
  6. Beat the living daylights out of anyone who fails to honour their side of the agreement.

Yo String!

Not so very hard is it? The bright young things are about to give the drugs industry the biggest boost it has had in many years. Organised crime is good at this stuff. Check out the way the Calabrian Mafia are able to get millions of Euros out of the EU’s Agricultural Subsidies thanks to some quick footed bribery and violence. All big chunks of public cash act as a magnet for the new Mafias and they are hugely adept at latching onto every last penny. Giving £1.5 million of cold hard cash to people who are addicted to drugs is almost uniquely idiotic. The phrase ‘taking candy of babies’ springs to mind.

So who are the victims of the bright young things ande their Neo Liberal nonsense? Well, first and foremost will be the social landlords who won’t get the rent paid. Can our local housing associations stand a £3 million drop in income when 750 of their tenants don’t pay any rent? Doubtful. In time, the 750 will be evicted and they will be denied homeless accommodation as they will have ‘intentionally’ made themselves homeless. They will have few opportunities to ‘sofa surf’ as most of those in flats where ‘sofa surfing’ is an option will have been evicted themselves.

So it will be more people sleeping under bridges and in shop door ways.

And maybe a few housing associations will go belly up.

And there will be something of a spike in the price of villas in Antigua.

And those super clever chaps in the City of London will rake in lots of extra commission fees as they launder the £1.5 billion.

So maybe it isn’t so hard to understand why two gangs from many miles away are willing to fight it out for the drug market in NW Dumfries after all.

Oh what a complete and utter bloody mess.