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.

Friday, January 24, 2014



“When one person dies it is a tragedy. When a million people die it is a statistic.”

So Uncle Joe Stalin once famously said. And of course nobody in the history of our troubled planet has ever been as well qualified to make such a statement. Uncle Joe knew exactly what was involved to kill folk by the million. The trouble is that the inescapable fact that Stalin was humankind’s greatest ever serial killer and as mad as a bag of frogs doesn’t necessarily mean that he was wrong on this one.

Every single minute of every single day kids die all manner of desperate deaths. They get shredded by shrapnel in Syria. They starve in the baked earth of the Sub Sahara. They get droned in Waziristan. They get worked to death in camps in North Korea.  Hundreds every day. Probably thousands. And no matter how hard we try, it is impossible to compute the sheer depth of the murder and mayhem that goes down in every corner of the planet. Like Stalin said. They are mere statistics. Snap shots from the news.

But the same cannot be said about Madeleine McCann. It is nearly seven years since Madeleine vanished in Praia Da Luz and still her face appears on a daily basis. Madeleine is no statistic. Madeleine is a tragedy. A face. A young girl with desperate parents and a million posters in her name.

Big numbers are hard to deal with. I remember as a kid being told that the light from the next star after the sun had begun its journey to my eyeballs sometime during the reign of Henry the Eighth and had been travelling at the speed of light ever since. That is a concept that is just way too big. It is the kind of thing that can completely fry your brain.

I mention all this because I have just spent half an hour or so wondering how to get my head around what three and a half billion people actually looks like. It’s roughly half the population of the planet, but if you were to take a peek from the space station you wouldn’t see any of them.

So how to frame an image of so very many?

As a long time football nut, crowd numbers have always been important to me. What was the score? How many were there? In the world of British football, Wembley Stadium is the place where you fit in the largest number. For the sake of easy maths, let’s round Wembley’s 92,000 capacity up to 100,000.


If you lined up several Wembley stadiums, how many would it take to make the line a mile long? About ten I guess. Ten Wembley stadiums with a million people inside.

Fine. I can make a mental picture of that.

Every other weekend I hop into my car and drive from Dumfries to Anfield for the match. It is a drive of 150 miles. So if there was a line of Wembley stadiums at the side of the road all the way from the start to the end of my journey, that would mean 1500 stadiums holding 150 million people. Now that is a tad harder to get the head around. The idea of driving for the thick end of two and a half hours passing 1500 massive football stadiums is reaching into the realms of pure science fiction.

What if there were stadiums either side of the road creating a bizarre kind of tunnel effect? 3000 stadiums. 300 million people. Every man, woman and child in Europe. Now that would be something you could see all the way from space.


We’re Getting there.

But why think small?

Let’s take that tunnel of stadiums all the way south from Dumfries to the white cliffs of Dover. 450 miles. 9000 stadiums. 900 million people. The whole population of Europe, America and Russia put together.

Let’s go bigger.

Let’s take the stadium tunnel all the way from Calais to Moscow. 1500 miles more. Another 3000 stadiums. Another 3 billion people. Wow. We’re up to almost 4 billion now. More than half of everyone in the world……

Hang on a sec…

That is over 3.5 billion. I would get to 3.5 billion somewhere near Smolensk.

So THAT is what 3.5 billion looks like.

A road from Dumfries to Smolensk with 17500 Wembleys on one side and 17500 Wembleys on the other side. 50 non stop hours of driving at a steady 70mph.

Now that’s a big thought. A real visible from space thought.


What is the relevance of 3.5 billion on a dismal grey morning in January?

It becomes relevant when partnered with the number at the top of this blog.


The richest 85 people on our planet own the same as the poorest 3.5 billion. Like Stalin said. Just a statistic.

85 is a Madeleine McCann number. An average sized restaurant can seat 85 people. A small town McDonalds can seat 85 people. A person with a mere 85 friends on Facebook is considered a ‘saddo’ by the coming generation. Picturing 85 is easy as switching channels on the tele.

The people in those 35,000 Wembley stadiums lining the long and winding road from Dumfries to Smolensk lead pretty tough lives. They work 15 hours a day for the price of a bowl of rice. They die young from completely curable diseases. They live in shacks made from cardboard and corrugated iron. They watch their kids die in their infancy. They wake up before dawn to the reek of open sewers.

How extraordinary to think that after all the wars and scientific breakthroughs and political evolutions of human history, this is the place where we have arrived. It is our destination. This is the point all those millions of years of evolution have brought us to; a world where 85 people own the same as 3.5 billion. A world where those 85 people go to almost any lengths to stuff their treasure away in offshore troves. Will they ever spend their money? Of course they won’t. Such sums of money are impossible to spend. All they can do is gaze at it with sated lust like Gollum with his ‘Precious’. And all the while, half of the planet hangs onto miserable life by a thread.

This is the best way we have found to run our railroad.

Would a pack of wolves stand for such an outcome where one wolf eats all day whilst the ones who do all the hunting starve to death and watch their cubs die? Would they hell. Nature wouldn’t allow such a thing because after a few short months the pack would only have one wolf left. And that wolf would be very fat indeed and looking with some confusion at the rotting corpses of the rest of the pack. The fat wolf would have no idea of how to go about doing any hunting and after a few weeks more it too would have starved to death and joined the rest of the corpses.

Every other mammal on the planet has managed to evolve with a degree of logic. Only one mammal has completely dumped the common sense of nature and evolved into a state of such lunacy.

And we have the front to call ourselves civilised!

I am but a humble purveyor of pulp fiction. I could take that 50 hour drive past 35000 Wembley stadiums all the way from Dumfries to Smolensk and still not come close to finding the words to properly describe such abject lunacy. Instead I am more than happy to borrow a few timeless lines from Mr Shakespeare who had a knack of finding words to describe the indescribable.

‘But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep.’    

Thursday, January 23, 2014


The last couple of days have seen a deal of agonising about the rights and wrongs of Channel 4’s ‘Benefits Street’. In case anyone is unaware of the main thrust of the series, it basically gives a fly on the wall view of a blighted street in Birmingham where just about everyone is on either the dole or the sick. It features the full range of tabloid villains who are scrounging the nation to penury: drug addicts, alcoholics, Romanian migrant workers, dysfunctional families and feckless single mums, all swilling down morning cans of lager.

Last week I heard a pundit on the Guardian’s ‘Politics Weekly’ podcast call the programme ‘Poverty Porn’. Many have felt the same. Is the programme merely pandering to our prurient desire to take a peek at people who have so much less than ourselves? Maybe. But in reality seeing people on their absolute uppers doesn’t really cut it. I never heard anyone label Michael Buerk’s reports from the famine stricken dustbowls of Ethiopia in 1984 as ‘Hunger Porn.’ Viewers took no vicarious pleasure in tuning in to the sight of dying babies with eyes full of flies and bloated bellies. People didn't gleefully discuss the look of abject despair in the eyes of mothers whilst knocking back a couple of after work pints. Instead the nation rallied behind Bob Geldof and sent ‘Feed the World’ to number one in the charts for weeks on end.

Only the most warped individual would take any pleasure from watching utter human misery. I have yet to hear any outraged liberals complain at the nightly ‘Civil War Porn’ that pours out of the desperate rubble strewn streets of Syria.

So why is shining a light on the chaotic lives of some of Britain’s most deprived citizens deemed to be so very wrong? Well there is a distinct difference. Documentaries focusing on the plight of starving African kids or dismembered Syrian kids do not encourage the viewer to judge the victims. The only emotion they tend to generate is one of gnawing pity, coupled with a guilty private horror: what the hell would I do if that was my kids?

Benefits Street’ offers the viewer rather more options.
One, you can feel sorry for the poor sods who have been locked into the benefits trap for most of their lives and have little or no chance of ever escaping it.
Two, you can get well and truly angry at the moronic system that allows such a thing to happen.
Three, you can harshly judge the people in the programme for their idleness and fecklessness. I guess this is where the ‘Porn’ accusation comes from. All too many people love nothing better than to judge others.

Judge harshly. Look down on. Turn their noses up. Say things like. ‘It’s a disgrace.’ ‘Shouldn’t be allowed.’ ‘They should be ashamed of themselves.’

Oh yeah. Let’s not forget the old favourite.

‘If I had my way I would put the whole lot of them on a boat, sail it out to sea, and sink it.’

This is what I often think of as the ‘bloke at the bar test.’

For as long as there have been bars for blokes to sit at, there have been blokes who have loved nothing better than to hold forth and spit out their poison of choice. The bloke at the bar never really changes. He wants to hate someone. He wants to feel better than someone. He wants to blame someone. He wants someone to carry the can. And most importantly, he wants everyone within earshot to agree with him. To slap him on the back. To buy him a drink. To notice him. To give him some credit.

So the bloke at the bar who gets his rocks off by publically hating someone never really changes. What changes is who he is allowed to publically hate without being reported to the police, arrested and charged.

Here are a few examples.

A bloke at a Munich bar in 1937.

“God I hate these stinking Yids. If I had my way I would put the whole lot of them on a boat, sail it out to sea, and sink it.’

Would he have been in any bother? Be serious!

Would he be in bother if he tried it today. Sure would.

A bloke at a bar in Glasgow in 1949.

‘I really hate all these shirt-lifting poofs. If I had my way I would put the whole lot of them on a boat, sail it out to sea, and sink it.’

Trouble? Not a bit. We used to chemically castrate homosexuals back then so being called shirt-lifting poofs would have been the least of their problems.

Strathclyde’s finest would have lots to say about it today.

A bloke at a bar in Birmingham, Alabama in 1956.

‘Christ I hate all these Commie bastards in Holywood and Broadway. If I had my way I would put the whole lot of them on a boat, sail it out to sea, and sink it.’

On you go son. Senator McCarthy was saying much the same thing on prime time every night.

Well our American cousins still have little time for communists, but that kind of thing wouldn’t be deemed to be acceptable any more.

A bloke at bar in Birmingham, UK in 1958.

‘Tell you what lads, I can’t stand all these bloody Niggers. If I had my way I would put the whole lot of them on a boat, sail it out to sea, and sink it.’

Fine and dandy in 1958. Not fine at all now.

The same bloke sat bat the same Birmingham bar in 1971.

‘Tell you what lads, I can’t stand all these bloody Pakis. If I had my way I would put the whole lot of them on a boat, sail it out to sea, and sink it.’

Still fine and dandy in 1971. Not fine at all now.

Bloke at the same Birmingham bar last night.

‘Have you seen that lot in ‘Benefits Street’? Make me bloody sick they do. Alkies, junkies and Romanians. Can’t stand the lot of them. Scrounging bastards. If I had my way I would put the whole lot of them on a boat, sail it out to sea, and sink it.’

Would there be a call made to summon the West Midlands Police? Doubtful. And even if there was a call, there would be nothing that the boys in blue could do about it.

And so we arrive at the very heart of the matter. Whether we like it or not, a large percentage of people like nothing better than the warm glow of prejudice. It makes them feel better about themselves as people. It makes their bare little lives seem more acceptable. The likes of Hitler get this and they create dynasties out of it. They turn hatred and prejudice into the done thing. The way ahead. The norm.

They turn the bloke at the bar into an icon. All of a sudden he is the flavour of the month. He is not painted as a twisted, bitter old git who spits out his own brand of poisn to mask the fact that his life is rubbish. Oh no. Adolf and Joseph Goebbels were having none of that. Instead they bigged him up. They told him he was a Superman for no other reason than the fact that generations of his relatives came from within the German borders. The fact that he was thick as a plank and as nasty as a yard dog was all forgotten. He was praised as a hard working family man. He was revered for coming from pure Aryan stock. He was made a hero for no other reason than the fact that he worked ten hours a day for minimum wage and hated the Yids like a true patriot.

This I suppose is the main reason why so many instinctively recoil from ‘Benefits Street’. From a purely commercial point of view, it must have the money men at Channel 4 doing jigs of joy. I wonder how much the cost of an advert must have gone up from Episode 1 to Episode 4. 200%? 500%? It has to be an absolute load.

All over Britain blokes sitting at bars will be passing judgement on the chaotic antics of the residents of Benefits Street. Nobody will be arrested and charged because just like it was perfectly OK to hate the Jews in 1930’s Germany, it is every bit as OK to hate the scrounging poor in 2014 Britain.

So is this enough to say that Channel 4 were wrong in putting this kind of stuff out at prime time?

Well not in my book.

Just because the programme panders to the spiteful poor hating agenda of the Government and the tabloid media doesn’t mean that it isn’t painting a very true picture. The reality of lifetime benefit dependency is a thing that we have been banging on about at First Base for years and years. And for most of those years, nobody has shown any inclination whatsoever to listen. We have never judged the people who have make such a lifestyle choice. After all, they are doing nothing more than the vast majority of people. They are working out which life choices will give them maximum return.

Any maths graduate in the top ten of his Harvard class has the chance to make his brilliant mind available to creating new, ground breaking scientific breakthroughs which will make the lives of millions of fellow human beings better. More crops and less disease and cheaper homes. Do many take such a path? No. Instead they almost all succumb to the siren voices of the casino banks on Wall St. They follow the dollar and sell their genius to Goldman Sachs. Does the bloke at the bar have a pop at them? Does he hell.

What life choices does an 18 year old girl in Britain with no qualifications have? Not many. She can get work on the supermarket checkouts or in a hairdressers. 20 hours a week at minimum wage. Never in a million years enough for a place of her own and a weekly spending spree in Primark and ten bottles of Blue Wicked on a Saturday night. There is however a choice.


Four kids can generate a benefits package of £20,000 a year after tax and a rent free house. Four kids basically means the equivalent disposable income to someone earning £60,000 a year. So do we judge the individual for making the career choice of having kids for an income that otherwise would be a pipe dream? Well the bloke at the bar certainly does. But it would be a whole lot smarter to judge the stupid system that puts such sums of cash on the table.

For me the main message from ‘Benefits Street’ is exactly the same as we see every single day at First Base. Of course all of us would rather the individuals who have taken benefits as their choice of life would go out to work for a living instead. Obviously we would. But it isn’t as simple as that. The real question is what work are such people capable of doing. They have never in their lives got out of bed at seven in the morning to take the bus to work. Many can barely read or write and they have no experience in anything at all. If they knuckle down and get someone to help them to fill in an application form and by some miracle get themselves an interview, what are the chances of them being chosen ahead of the other ten or twenty folk who are pitching for the same job? Less than zero. And if by an even bigger miracle they do manage to get a start, will they be able to dump the habits of a lifetime and arrive every day on time?

It is all very well sitting at the bar berating the residents of Benefits Street and demanding that they get a job and stop sponging. That is the easy bit. The hard bit is finding any job they have a chance of getting.

The Welfare State has been a complete basket case for 30 years and many have chosen it as a career. We don’t like it, but it has happened. We see the characters of Benefits Street every single day at First Base. In reality most will never get a job and they will be completely dependent on welfare until the day they die. It is a horrible truth but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Be honest. If you had a small business of your own and you had advertised a vacancy, would you take a risk on one of the characters from the programme who has not a single entry on their CV? No references and no work experience and a few black marks on their Disclosure report? Or would you hire the smart Chemistry graduate from Kracow or Riga or Bucharest? Let’s face it, we cannot blame employers for playing safe and hiring the bright young things of the old Communist Block. It is the smart choice.

There is no point in staying in denial about the legacy of allowing the Welfare State to become a sad joke for thirty years. And there is no point in blaming the people who have played the system for everything they could get. At least Benefits Street has lifted a lid on the whole fiasco and got millions to watch.

Does it offer any answers? No. Well, not so far.

But at least it has posed the question and for that Channel 4 should be commended, not slagged off.      

Thursday, January 16, 2014



Yesterday an e mail dropped into my inbox with the kind of incomprehensible title that could only emerge from the bowels of the Ministry of Defence.

‘FW: 20140109-The_Mental_Health_of_Armed_Forces_Veterans_GOCSpComd_DG’

Where would our Armed Forces be without their initials! I opened the missive up and downloaded the attachment and duly discovered a truly nasty little document. Once the writer had got all of his letters and initials in place at the top of the page, he wasted no time in announcing his intentions.


Over the past few months there has been a general drip of negative publicity about the mental state of Armed Forces’ veterans. Our research shows that the negative publicity and perception is unjustified.’

The writer’s mood isn’t exactly hard to fathom. He’s an angry man. He really hates all this wishy, washy tosh in the media about British squaddies failing to stiffen their upper lips and get on with things. Perish the thought! Stuff and nonsense. He goes on to explain that for the vast majority of personnel who leave the Armed Forces life is absolutely tip top and anyone who tries to claim otherwise is a limp wristed liberal at best and closet communist at worst.

Eventually he adopts a parade ground tone to let us know in no uncertain terms that rumours of PTSD and the like are grossly overstated.

‘The adverse outcomes (common mental health problems, unemployment, social isolation, encounters with the criminal justice system) present at a rate less than that in the general population.’

So there we are. All the stuff we have been hearing about guys having a tough time when they come home from Iraq and Afghanistan is utter baloney. It’s a wicked plot hatched by left wingers and ‘do gooder’ types who are hell bent on having a pop at our heroic armed forces.

This isn’t the first time that I have heard this message rattled out. A couple of years ago I was invited to attend a Sub-Committee meeting up at the Scottish Parliament where the challenges facing veterans were discussed. The Military fielded their top doctor flanked with a couple Colonels to carry his bags. In a fierce tone he informed the room that incidences of PTSD in ex service personnel were in fact lower than in the general population. I cannot remember the exact figure he trotted out, but it was under 2.5%.

I raised my hand and raised the fact that recent figures released by the Pentagon had revealed that 30% of American troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were suffering from some kind of mental health problem. I asked if he could maybe explain why there was such a vast disparity between our figure of under 2.5% and their figure of 30%. Did the fighting men of America lack moral fibre and backbone? Was this clear evidence of the fact that the world famous British stiff upper lip was very much alive and kicking?

If looks could have killed then I would certainly not be penning this blog. I was fixed with a murderous stare as the big man from the MOD fumed at the fact that I was not in uniform. Had I been in uniform, I dare say he would have shipped me off to Colchester Military Prison for a prolonged lesson in manners and respect. He left it to one of his wing men to field the question with a blizzard of goggledy-gook describing the different reporting techniques employed by the two armies.

Once upon a time the Americans shared our denial on this issue. They played the John Wayne card and claimed that only communist types suffered when they came home from war.

Then came Vietnam and the truth could be hidden no more. America was forced to own up to the fact that many hundreds of thousands of its young men had been mentally dismantled in the deadly jungles of South East Asia.

PTSD is no longer a dark secret on the other side of the pond. They admit to it. They accept it. They treat it. They allocate resources: plenty of resources.

But what do they know? After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that the whole pack of them were our subjects. They are still a bunch of unwashed types who really should be under Colonial rule.

Here is another extract from the heart of the document

'GENERAL POPULATION. The majority of personnel do make a successful transition to civilian life, although a small percentage struggle.'

So there we are. The message is clear. ‘a small percentage struggle’. The inference could not be more clear. Obviously there are a few weak ones among us. The runts of the litter. The bad eggs. But not many, by Jove! Hardly any at all! This after all is the British Army and we simply won’t stand for anything different.

Has he considered how such a ridiculously bombastic statement will make a guy feel who is trying to get through night after night of nightmares and flashbacks? I dare say he hasn’t. I doubt if he cares.

Only one living British soldier wears the Victoria Cross. His name is Johnson Beharry and the heroism he displayed when he saved the lives of umpteen of his comrades in a vicious firefight in Iraq quite frankly beggars belief. Once he was out of hospital and returned to duty, the nightmares crawled all over him like an army of ants. In the end he could take it no more and drove his car into a lamp post at high speed. Belatedly the doctors diagnosed PTSD and treated him accordingly. At this point Johnson yet again showed huge courage and called a press conference to tell the world of his mental torment. Once again he was looking out for his comrades; thousands and thousands of them who dreaded the onset of sleep. The Army were livid. They wanted Johnson to be the handsome pin up boy of the recruitment posters. They certainly didn’t want him as a mouthpiece for all those unable to leave the carnage of their combat zones behind.

There has always been an unspoken rule that any soldier who complains about mental trauma is a weakling. A weak link. Any who report to the doctor whilst they still wear a uniform can expect to be ostracised from the group. All of a sudden they are an embarrassment. A leper. All of a sudden they get to eat on their own.

This is why Johnson Beharry presented such a problem. Nobody in their right mind could ever accuse Johnson Beharry of being weak.

At First Base we have run our Veterans Project for three years now. During that time we have helped out 150 local vets. Well over half have struggled with flashbacks and nightmares. The guys carry the haunting memories of fifty years worth of British war: the cold mayhem of Ulster in the 70’s and 80’s, the freezing mud of the Falklands, the high tech slaughter of Iraq 1, the psychotic murder of Bosnia, the backs against the wall nightmare of Iraq 2 and Helmand.

Believe me, these are not weak men and they are not a minority. Every one of them gave all they had to give. They were taken to the very darkest place of all human life where men kill and maim each other. And their brains have not been able to file away what they seen and done.

Every time I have sat with one of the guys as they have dredged up pictures of the bottom layers of hell, I have been reminded of the words whispered by the dying Kurtz first in ‘Heart of Darkness’ and then in ‘Apocalypse Now’

“The horror, the horror.”     

The weapons may become more high tech, but the horror never changes. A ripped apart human body will always be a ripped apart human body. A lost comrade will always be a lost comrade. PTSD is often described as a completely normal reaction to a completely abnormal experience. This is why it seems utterly absurd to me for a claim to be made that soldiers returning from brutal combat zones are less likely to suffer PTSD than the rest of us who have never looked horror in the eye.

Over recent months I have stumbled on a couple revelations that have belatedly emerged from long secret MOD files. Long kept secrets grudgingly released.

In the depths of the First World War the British High Command became increasingly concerned that our frontline trenches seemed to be falling far to easily when the Germans launched an attack. The only way we seemed able to stop such assaults was by saturating the area with high explosive fired by our artillery.


Nobody seemed to know, so a secret investigation was set in motion. Every time a trench was overrun and then re-taken, the investigators would be first on the scene to examine the corpses. To the horror of the High Command, it turned out that 60% of the corpses had failed to fire their rifles. The guys had been lined up on the firing step of the trench staring out across No Man’s Land as a bunch of screaming Germans charged at them. It was the ultimate life or death situation. Kill or be killed. But even in such a dire situation, only 40% of them had been able to take aim at and pull the trigger. When it came down to it, they were incapable of looking a fellow human being in the eye and murdering them. Dropping a shell into an artillery piece was obviously a much easier thing to do.

In 1944 the British Army had two and a half million in uniform. However only 300,000 were front line troops. It has recently emerged that in the weeks and months after D Day only 200,000 of these soldiers were to be found in the front line. The other 100,000 had deserted. Hindsight has revealed that the vast majority of those who deserted were suffering from chronic PTSD.

A tiny majority?

I don’t think so.
The truth is that battle stress is as old as mankind. It part of the price we pay for our evolved brains. Wolves and lions and tigers never struggle with PTSD. They have never been taught about conscience and morality. They kill to eat. Easily. Without compunction.

We are different. And the fact that so many soldiers find it hard to live with the horrors they have seen is surely a good thing. Would we really want our soldiers to be indifferent to the pornographic carnage of the battlefield? A decent society would acknowledge this and bust a gut to give them the help they need. Instead the bean counters in the MOD are terrified that if they acknowledge the reality of PTSD, they will have to start writing compensation cheques. And that of course would mean less money in the pot to pay out all those lovely final salary pensions. We have been sending our young men to war for many hundreds of years more that the Americans. And yet they learnt how to do the right thing in two hundred years. We still haven’t come close and this nasty little letter is living, breathing proof.