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, December 16, 2014


Mondays mean early. Mondays mean fifty loaves of bread are available from the Greggs store on the High Street where all vehicle access ends at 8 am.
Or else.
Technically the sun is up, but there is little evidence of that being the case. Downtown Dumfries is a country mile from making onto any kind of Christmas card as a half hearted wind wanders through the empty streets like an aimless beggar. It is a world of dismal orange as street lamps spill their light down onto wet pavements.
Not many people about. A street sweeper and the East European driver who parks up his artic wagon outside the Ryman shop at the same time every week with the cast iron punctuality of a German train.
Fifty loaves of bread for the hungry. 20 kilos worth of free and gratis carbs care of the nation’s favourite purveyor of fine pies and pasties. Our fifty loves will feed exactly fifty people for we have yet to learn the happy knack of taking a mere seven loaves and making them into enough to feed five thousand.
The next stop is usually Morrisons where we have a collection box. A rare chance to park up more or less next to the front door and walk into the store as it is rubbing its eyes and waking up. Donated tins and packets are scanned through on 'training mode' to give a total but no bill to pay. For the next year we also get the chance to empty the dog collection bin as the local sanctuary for the town’s lost and stray four legged friends is being sponsored by Pedigree Foods. And here’s the thing. There is always at least twice as much food in the dog bin as there is in the human bin. Ah yes. The Brits and our dogs. The Daily Mail likes dogs of course. And the Daily Mail feels sorry for any dogs who have fallen on hard times. Well of course it does. It’s not their fault after all. They deserve sympathy and support. Human beings on the other hand…….
Shirkers and scroungers. Obesity and daytime widescreen TV. Support and sympathy? Come on. Be serious.
But this week Morrisons will have to wait until Tuesday morning because there are too many other things to do.
I open up the front door and there are three hand delivered letters waiting on the mat. A card smothered in silver glitter. A country church almost swallowed up in snow. The paper is cheap and thin but the handwriting is scrupulously careful. The words are well worth quoting in full.
‘To all at First Base (Hand drawn smiley face)
Thank you for helping me and my family with food parcels this year! I know I couldn’t have done it by myself. Thank you again. Great work!’
So what do you make of that Mr Daily Mail. Nice careful handwriting and not a word misspelt. Not bad for a shirking, scrounging wastrel.
The second Christmas card is a snow covered pine tree.
‘Thanks for all you do. A little contribution to the food bank. Best wishes.’
The signature is illegible which is frustrating because it makes saying thank you an impossibility. And thanks are certainly in order as the little contribution is five crisp twenties fresh out of a cash machine.
The third card opens onto a cheque for £200. I was expecting this one. It is from a couple of fellow travellers from the ‘Yes’ campaign who rang last week to say they had decided to trust us to spend their Winter Fuel Allowance on people who needed it more than they did.
The phone rings for the first time in the week before Christmas week a minute or so after nine. It’s a guy who has got lucky at the bookies over the weekend and won himself fifty quid. Well it’s always nice to share the luck around, so has cashed in his winnings and headed into Tesco to roll his winnings into fifty quid’s worth of food for the hungry. Can he deliver it? Sure he can deliver it. I give him directions to the back door.
Next call. A voice on the other end of the line gears up to tell a complicated tale. It’s the captain of an Irish Sea trawler working out of Kirkudbright. He’s had a decent week and the scallop haul has been good. As his boat chugged back into the home port he has decided it would be good to share his catch around some.
So first we get the bread and now we get the fishes. Bloody hell. Next up will be three wise guys knocking the door with a satellite-bright star bathing the street in film set light. I cock my ear for the sound of a braying donkey but I hear nothing more than the sound of engines idling at the lights outside the window.
Anyway. My man from the sea tells me that he has put a 35kg bag of King Scallops up onto Facebook and invited bids on the basis that any proceeds will find there way to somewhere the hungry go for food. He says he’s had a few responses suggesting that the proceeds should find there way to First Base. But nobody has stepped forward to buy the scallops. So here’s the thing. There’s a 35 kg bag of King Scallops sitting on the deck of a trawler right now. If I can find a buyer then the money is all ours. But the clock is ticking. The boat is due to head back out to sea in the late afternoon.
OK. 35g of scallops. Seven hours. Life is seldom dull.
I leave a message with an old neighbour who once upon ran a fishmongers in the town before it closed down a few years ago along with all the other small businesses. Well. In the real world that is. All these shops are still to be found on Christmas cards where every high street shop is still a family run affair.
He gets back to me ten minutes later with a recommendation to call the owner of a restaurant who prides himself on his shell fish.
I call. He’s out. I tell my phone to remind me to call a little later. But not too much later for the boat will sail as the early dusk swallows up the brooding hills of Galloway into a dark December night.
Another call. Guys at the front door. They are from the SNP and they had been out and about on the High Street collecting food. An idea from the time of Dickens advertised through a slick Facebook campaign. One of them shows me a photo of the haul on his mobile. Bloody hell. My old Volvo is a venerable workhorse, but this lot ain’t going to be shifted in a single trip. A plan of attack is put together. Logistics are worked through. There is a lad from Shelter coming with a Land Rover Discovery. The odds are that the two vehicle convoy will be just about enough to haul the load.
Noon arrives and cars from the small village churches start to arrive at the back door to off load carrier bags.
Mince pies and selection boxes and chocolate Santas. Hundreds of kilogrammes worth of carefully considered goodwill.
A call from a lady with a softer than soft Irish voice. Could she deliver? Sure she could. More directions to the back door. By now men from the Council are out and about filling in the potholes of the Great Recession and getting in and out of Brewery Street is far from easy. The lady with the soft voice arrives and she says there isn’t much because it is only from her. But only from her means ten bags worth. Eight tins of family biscuits and four boxes of mince pies. Her eyes light up when we get into the basement. People are really good aren’t they she says. Yes I agree. People are indeed really good. And will you have enough? Oh yes. We’ll have enough. By hook or by crook we always manage to have enough. Only this year we’ve had more help than we’ve ever had before.
The SNP haul is gargantuan. The battered Volvo and the better cared for Discovery are weighed down to the wheel rims. A reporter from the paper lands and wants a picture. The tarmac boys find the whole thing hugely amusing as we make a stack of bags in the newly smooth road out back. I volunteer Iain and Lesley for the photo proving yet again that rank has its privileges. It’s the part I always forget to mention to our volunteers when they sign on the dotted line. Come on board and you get frog marched into the photos for the papers. I share a fag with one of the SNP guys whilst everyone beams for the camera. One of our back doors bears the spray canned daub of a charming gang of Buckfast swilling wannabe’s from twenty miles down the road. They made their mark a couple of years ago whilst on a day trip to town.
As in the Annan Mental Posse.
You’ve got to love it, right? 
I wonder if their mark will be visible beyond the piled up food and the smiling faces. Part of me hopes it will be.
John turns up with contributions from the upper reaches of the Nith Valley. For years as an implacable Unite shop steward, John made the life of the management of Brown Brothers an ongoing misery. But once he retired, John buried his hatchet and they buried theirs. He swung us an appointment with the directors of the Kelloholm meat factory and after an hour they agreed to give us 85 packets of sliced meat every week. John ferries the meat south and then ferries food boxes to Thornhill, Sanquhar and Kelloholm in the opposite direction. Thankfully I am on the phone and he is in a rush. He enjoys nothing better than tormenting me about any trials and tribulations Liverpool Football Club might be going through. A three nil drubbing at the hands of the hated Mancs counts as a pretty major tribulation and I am delighted to have seen neither hide nor hair of the retired union warhorse.
At two o clock we get the doors closed and set about the task of unpacking and stacking the SNP bags. Tin by tin and box by box and packet by packet until the basement has the look of an underground bunker set fair to keep the men and women of the Government fed and watered for many a month in a post nuclear world.
Scallop time.
I climb into the cockpit of the Volvo and consider my audio options for the 25 mile run along the coast to Kirkudbright. There is a slow dusk and a thin rain. The world is a mixture of black and grey. The stage is set and ready for the words of Boris Pasternak. The audio version of Doctor Zhivago. You really have to be a Russian to tell the stories of life and the universe in that particular way they tell it. I drive empty roads as the Tsarist armies are routed on the Eastern Front and the approaching sound of a revolution begins to fill the air.
I reach the harbour for the last light of day. The sun has managed to find an unlikely gap in the clouds and the scene has the unworldly glow of a Spielberg movie. Boats are being readied for the sea and my man comes over to shake my hand. On board, two hyper polite Sri Lankans heave the bag of scallops onto the quayside and then into my boot. The guys on the decks have a United Nations look about them. I comment on this and hear what I already know only too well. Twenty years ago and the crews would have all been local guys. But the heroin industry made a beeline for the fishing boats in the nineties and sunk its hooks in deep. Many trawlermen became life members of what is now called the ‘Trainspotting Generation’
So now many Scottish trawlers are crewed by lads from Asia and Africa. They don’t half know how to fish but the cold never finds a way out of their bones.
We share a couple of fags and I really like the guy. Night falls and one by one the boats head out to sea with winking deck lights.
Time to go.
The rain comes back for the journey home as Yuri Zhivago starts to deal with the wrecked bodies of lads from the countryside sent off to a Twentieth Century war.
The guy at the restaurant wants to see some I.D. I give him an Annual Report and a leaflet about the food parcels. I just love the idea of a scam artist concocting a tale of being a foodbank manager in order to hawk a sack of King Scallops for £80. The transaction goes through. 
First Base is well and truly in the shellfish game.
Tomorrow I will buy £80 worth of tuna and turn shellfish into tinned fish.
One last call. It’s the local paper. Can I comment on the fantastic generosity of the community?
You bet.
Because the real world isn’t like the dismal abyss of hatred and selfishness which gets pushed into our faces by the likes of UKIP and the Daily Mail. The real world isn’t like the locked down social wilderness Maggie Thatcher seemed to yearn for when she promised us there was no longer such a thing as community.
Not so Maggie.
Not even close.
I know the lady’s not for turning, but your ghost is more than welcome to check out all the selection boxes and chocolate Santas in our basement and then you can turn in your grave if you like.
Because Community rules OK.
Maybe I should spray it on the back door alongside the mark of the good old boys of The Annan Mental Posse. .    

Friday, December 12, 2014


Before going so much as a sentence further, I really should point out that this blog is unlikely to be of any interest whatsoever to anyone other than ‘Yes’ supporters in Dumfries and Galloway. So there you go. Pre-warned is pre-armed and all that.

Yesterday my phone beeped at me to announce that a message had landed in the box from Richard Arkless. He is campaigning hard to become the SNP candidate for our region in next May’s General Election. The message said he was in the process of setting up his candidate website and he wondered if I might be willing to write a few words.

Well Richard, a few words are the very least I can do.

I can’t pretend to know Richard well, but for a few months in the crazy countdown to the Referendum vote we became fellow travelers in the cause of ‘Yes’. We had quite a lot in common as a pair of ‘Ordinary Joes’ learning as we went along how to deal with the hurly burly of politics.

It seems worth kicking off with one of the issues that stirred things up on last night’s Question Time. Are today’s politicians detached? Have far too many of them done nothing more than get straight A’s in school, the right degree in University and done the right amount of crawling as so called ‘special advisors’ and sycophantic tea makers?

Want a case study?

So here’s a case study.

Ladies and Gentlemen I give you the Right Honourable Jim Murphy. Jim left school at 18 and took up a place to study Politics and European Law at Strathclyde University. He then studied Politics and European Law at Strathclyde University for THE NEXT NINE YEARS!

And then?

Well, as a fiction writer I would never dare to make this up but it is entirely true -  Jim never actually managed to graduate. Nine years and no degree!

However Jim spent his nine years productively. He made a beeline for the National Union of Students where he duly ingratiated himself with the powers that be in Scottish Labour. Who needs a degree when a bit for frantic crawling can win you the chance of getting into the mother of all Parliaments despite neither having worked a day in your life?

Well Jim made it all the way to the big house and predictably he became one of Tony Blair’s most fawning acolytes. He actually made it all the way to Shadow Defence Secretary where he took every chance to hobnob with anyone with Afghan dust on their boots. My how tough he talked to the Taliban through the lens of the TV cameras, though he didn’t prove to be quite such a tough guy when his steadiness under fire was tested by an incoming egg.

Jim is hardly alone in riding the Parliamentary gravy train with a CV devoid of real life experience.

Check out Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. A nice Hampshire girl who was top of everything at school. She then got a first in Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Balliol College, Oxford and was duly welcomed onto the gravy train with open arms. She did her bit researching for John Smith and Harriet Harman and was duly rewarded with the ultra safe seat of Pontefract and Castleford.

As in Yorkshire.

As in an Oxbridge nice girl from leafy Hampshire who has never done a proper job in her life being foisted onto people who once upon a time mined coal for a living.

As a Northerner myself, I can only wonder at how pissed off the good folk of that particular bit of South Yorkshire must have been to have someone like Yvette Copper parachuted in to become their voice.

The pathetic and infuriating life stories of Murphy and Cooper highlight the fact that Richard absolutely ain’t one of those.

Like I said, he’s an Ordinary Joe who has lived and breathed in the hard school of the real world. During the Indy campaign, he was always the one who was given the hardest job – it was down to Richard to explain all the unintelligible Economics stuff. He shelled out a couple of hundred quid or so to join up with Business Scotland and was duly rewarded by being given the job of explaining what GDP was to the good folk of Dumfries and Galloway. Time and again when chatting to people after meetings, they told me how amazed they were at finally understanding what GDP was for the first time in their lives.

I never failed to be impressed by Richard’s grasp of all aspects of the economy and the clear way he was able to explain it. Not once did I hear him resort to the comfort zone of jargon. I know this will annoy him, but the way he explains complicated stuff has much in common with Nigel Farage. Sorry about that Rich, but the ability to talk like a human being is not a thing to be underestimated!

For the last few weeks of the campaign Richard was out and about every night knocking doors and doing meetings. Sometimes there were 200 people in the hall, sometimes a mere ten. He didn’t get paid and I shudder to think how much his business suffered.

Nobody was left in any doubt as to why he threw himself into the fray with such wholehearted commitment.

Richard is a believer – plain and simple. He wants his kids to grow up in a country governed from a Parliament in Edinburgh.

At times the campaign got pretty brutal. One night Richard and I found ourselves debating Russell Brown MP and Elaine Murray MSP in Moniave. At the 'Yes'  table there was a charity manager and a Stranraer businessman. At the 'No' table there were two professional politicians with well over thirty years of experience under their belts. I think it is fair to say that neither of the full time politicos were in any mood to pull any punches that night! When Richard said that in his opinion the Scots were the greatest people on earth, Elaine called him a racist. Things got pretty heated. No quarter was asked and absolutely none was given. Richard never took a backward step and when economics were under discussion he ran rings round the supposed experts. It was genuinely tough gig.

Who won? Well here’s a clue. As we all know, the ‘No’ campaign won by two to one in Dumfries and Galloway. ‘Yes’ only managed to buck the trend in the poorer places where people are being hammered into the ground by the Welfare Reforms.

So what of Moniave? Well surely Moniave must have been a sure-fire bastion of ‘No’. A postcard pretty rural village with 40% of the residents being incomers from south of the border. Well folks, Moniave voted ‘Yes’. It was a heroic splash of red in an unrelenting sea of countryside blue.

I reckon that night in Moniave offers all the evidence required that Richard is the right guy to carry the torch for us next May. It is one hell of an ask for anyone representing the SNP to actually win the seat, but I would give Richard a fighting chance.

If any of these words have in any way, shape or form persuaded you to give the lad your backing then please share them around among the other 2000 folk who will chose who we send out to carry on the fight next May.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


This really is a year of two very different Christmas worlds. Every waking hour of the day sees our various senses assaulted by frantic companies offering us lots of solutions to all our Christmas problems – what to give, what to wear, what to eat. Christmas on the tele is a snowy dreamland of a place where the streets are teeming with beaming families laden with tree ready presents. Mums of the year pull perfectly cooked turkeys from gleaming ovens in gleaming kitchens. Santa as everywhere.

Close your eyes and picture the typical TV Christmas High St. It has a kind of Victorian feel about it minus the pinch faced urchins with rickets. Most of the shops have a family owned look about them and their windows are decked out like something out of a Disney movie. The shoppers wear duffle coats and bobble hats and everyone is smiling so hard that they are in danger of ripping their faces. A soft snow is fluttering down and yet miraculously it isn’t turning to grey slush once it hits the pavement.

The Yuletide town centres of the adverts are the kind of place you would really like to be. In fact they are a bit like the rural dreamscapes where they make cider.

And then there is the reality.

The cold hard December reality of Great Britain 2014.

I took a walk into town yesterday to pay some cash into the bank. The Atlantic weather bomb the weather guys had told us about with such relish had very much arrived. The wind had the same kind of ugly brute force as a speeding coal wagon as it ripped along Buccleuch St. The miserable cut to the bone Christmas lights hung onto their lampposts like Philippino villagers in a typhoon.

No duffle coats and bobble hats. Just a small queue of cars with steamed up windows and a bus a third full of glumness.

Onto the High Street and not a family owned shop in sight. A couple of pound shops had made a half hearted effort to sell the idea of Christmas for a quid. Nobody had bothered to decorate the boarded up windows and why would they have? Still no duffle coats and bobble hats. In fact there were hardly any people at all. Just a few bent hurrying figures looking uneasily like the broken refugees from a Balkan war.

I met one of our food parcel regulars who was wrapped from head to toe in the kind of winter wear you can pick up for 50p from any good charity shop. Under the layers his face had a pale unshaven look and his eyes looked beaten. He told me that he was spending his morning looking for docked fags. Just like he spends every morning. But when the gutters struggle to handle the gurgling fallout of an Atlantic weather bomb, it ain’t such a great time to be out and about hunting for dockers.

Back in First Base there was a small queue of clients waiting for a bag of food. No duffle coats and bobble hats. Behind the counter Lesley and Iain are doing their best to inject some cheer and to be fair there was a mood to join in. But it is kind of hard to be cheerful when the power is off and the damp cold has gnawed its way all the way into your bones. One by one they unpacked their stories. The usual stories. Benefit sanctions and delays and appeals.

The stories of people who live lives which are forever ten pounds away from an empty cupboard.

A guy in his forties came through the door and asked if I could spare a couple of minutes for a word. Sure I could. He climbed up the stairs and looked soaked to the skin. Did he want a brew? No thanks. He said Sandy had told him it would be OK to call in. He said he had a wife and two kids at home, a fiver on the meter and nothing to eat. He said that the Job Centre were not happy with him. He couldn’t really understand why. He had been going online every day to fill in application forms. But they said he hadn’t been logging on properly. If he didn’t log on properly, how could they know if he had logged on at all? But if he hadn’t logged on how could he have filled in the application? That mattered not a jot. If he didn’t log on properly, as far as they were concerned he hadn’t logged on at all. And so without quite knowing how or why his life had descended into a Kafkaesque nightmare.

For some odd reason the Job Centre had decided to give him a tenner a week. Was that some kind of Christmas spirit? Maybe it was. Usually they give nothing. They had told him to appeal.

There was something in his eyes that worried me. It was the Balkan refugee thing again. Beaten. Competely beaten and devoid of so much as a shred of hope. Shuffling along the queue to the place where the balaclava clad executioners are doing their thing.

A potted life story.

Out of school at sixteen and straight onto a building site. A quarter of a century building stuff in and around Dumfries. A wife and a house and two kids. Then he decided that he was ready for a change and took up the chance to be the night manager job in a homeless hostel. Big mistake. Night after night the booze and valium fuelled violence of the residents ate away at him. Scared him. Drove him all the way to a nervous breakdown and pots of pills from the doctor. He was on the sick for a while as he got himself back together.

Then it was time to go back to the building site. Except it wasn’t because things had changed. He found that to get back into the building trade he would need to get a CSCS card to prove he was up to speed with the world of health and safety. OK, so how?

You pay your £200 and sit the test. 100 questions. Multiple choice. A walk in the park. And what if you don’t have £200?


Job Centre time. Could he access his £200 learning account provided free and gratis by our ever caring State? Sure he could. Except the paperwork for some reason took six months to come good. When the cash arrived he got the books and did the best he could. Not good enough. He failed. He took the thing again and failed again. His problem was that when he left school at sixteen he really hadn’t done all that well. That was why he chose a career on building sites.

Surely 25 years of experience should count for something? It would be nice to think it would. But it doesn’t. Not in Great Britain 2014. In Great Britain 2014 you need a CSCS card to lay bricks.

So now he needs to come up with another £200 to get the chance to sit the test again. At £10 a week, it will take him five months to save the cash always assuming that he and the rest of the family knock luxuries like food and electric light on the head.

Fifteen miles down the road in the small town of Annan there is a fish factory that works 24 hours a day in December to keep the shelves of M&S filled with smoked salmon. It is the time of year when they take on temporary staff and there is no requirement for a CSCS card. He made an appointment with his adviser at the Job Centre and asked for some help in applying for a slot on the fish packing team.

Do you speak Polish?

Excuse me.

I said do you speak Polish?

No. I don’t speak Polish.

Well there’s no point in applying then.

Because in Great Britain 2014 you need to make like Lech Walesa to get the chance to shrink wrap salmon for M&S to create that perfect TV Christmas table.

No wonder his eyes were dulled into such utter defeat.

A phone message.

A home carer had called. There was a client outside the village of Johnstonbridge who hadn’t eaten for a while. Could we take a food parcel round? Back story? Jesus. Registered blind with a sixteen year old son. What was in cupboard had been enough for her to feed son and get him to school.

She had gotten by on cups of tea.

For five days.

We don’t do deliveries but what can you do….

I humped a week’s worth of eating into my boot and headed out of town. The weather bomb was raging over dark hills and the trees were all bent double. It was a grey afternoon tailor made for filming the darker corners of Macbeth. Dumfries and Galloway is drop dead gorgeous on a sparkling day in May but on a howling ay in December it can seem as unrelenting as the Gobi desert.

Grey sodden fields and clusters miserable sheep. Dark brooding copses and battened down pebble-dash villages with the feel of a post nuclear world. The directions said to look left fifty yards by a humpback bridge.

I looked left and there it was.

A crumbling cottage on a rocky hill with the carcases of long dead cars in the yard. The track was rutted enough to make 5mph seem way too fast. The barbed wire was rusty. The dry stone walls looked like broken teeth. The gale roared through a broken barn like a Panzer division.

She met me at the door with her sightless eyes. She was clad in many layers of torn clothes which suggested that thinks had been hard for a while. Another refugee of a another Balkan war.

And apologies and more apologies. Shredded pride. And of course she had never dreamed it would ever come to this. Do any of us?

A week ago her husband had upped sticks and buggered off into the bottomless greyness of December. And he had taken the Post Office card with him. And they hadn’t done the weekly shop.

She had hoped it would be a short lived tantrum and he would soon be back. And so a day went by and then two days and then three. And she had lived of cups of tea and stretched the cupboard to feed her son.

After five days she had told her home carer and her home carer had told us.

And here I was with a week’s worth of eating and guarantee of more should more be required.

Maybe he’ll come back.

And if he doesn’t, there will be a new card for the Post Office and life will go on.

Back in the car I switched on the radio to try and distract myself with some football talk. But I hit an ad break and an audio version of that perfect Christmas.

I switched off and drove down grey roads in silence.

The gale thundered along the skyline and the rain made the wipers work hard for a living.

No duffle coats and bobble hats.

No people at all.

Just wet fields filled with wet sheep. Just a husband gone with the post office card and an hundred question multiple choice test for a CSCS card.

Just a whole bunch of tailor made extras for one of those movies about a Balkan War.