I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Many, many moons ago we had a family business making animal feed. From our dusty old mill in Lancaster we sent over 100,000 tonnes a year of cattle and sheep feed to all corners of Northern Britain. The job entailed many hours of standing in freezing farmyards passing the time of day with farmers and trying to persuade them to buy something.

In hindsight it was character building.

Over recent weeks my mind has been taken back to one particular encounter on a farm on the outskirts of Leeds. It was a huge enterprise. They milked over three hundred cows, reared pigs and collected the eggs from 30,000 chickens. More impressively still, they were marketing a high percentage of their produce themselves. Every day their milk floats headed out into the city bearing a selection of their wares. There was no chance in a million years that I was about to get an order from the old boy who was running the show. He had his suppliers screwed down to the floor and to trade with him would have been much akin to setting handfuls of ten pound notes alight.

But I vividly remember our farmyard chat.

He told me that he was just back from a two week trip to Kiev. This was pretty astonishing. It was hard to picture this particular red faced, flat capped Yorkshireman choosing the Ukraine as a holiday destination. In fact it was pretty hard to imagine him taking a holiday anywhere. He wasn’t the taking a holiday kind of a guy.

He soon put me right.

“I wasn’t on bloody holiday. In Kiev? Is tha’ mad or summat? Nae lad. I were invited. By Council.”

“Leeds Council?”

“Don’t be daft. Kiev Council. They paid plane tickets, hotels, whole bloody lot.”

These were the months following the spectacular implosion of the Soviet Empire. The old satellite states were claiming their independence from Moscow one by one and the Ukraine was one of the first in the queue.
The new born nations were scrambling to find a toehold in the world. I had visited the old Soviet Union a couple of times and therefore found it utterly fascinating that the new leadership in Ukraine had stumped up the cash to fly this gruff Yorkshire farmer east.

Why would they do that?

The answer wasn’t hard to understand. When Carol and I had visited Leningrad in the depths of the winter of 1991, old women could be seen queuing for hours on end to get into shops which were selling a range of produce that was made up of cabbage, cabbage and more cabbage, much of it rotten.

We were fine of course. We had dollars, and a fistful of dollars secured us access to the foreign currency shops which were reserved for the Party elite. The new rulers of independent Ukraine had twigged on to the fact that the road to their people’s hearts was through their stomachs. They needed to find a way to put affordable food on the shelves and to put it there quickly. So they had done themselves some blue sky thinking which had taken them to my man’s farm on the outskirts of Leeds.

They paid him a visit. They told him that they would like him to come over to Ukraine to do the same thing on the outskirts of Kiev as he did on the outskirts of Leeds. 

And the land? Oh the land was no problem. They had plenty of land. Millions and millions of acres. They would give him the land. All they wanted him to do was to show them how to turn that land into milk and cream and eggs and pork.

Just like he did in Leeds.

So he accepted the invitation. Of course he did. What Yorkshire farmer would ever knock back the chance to go and scope out a couple of thousand acres of free land. As if.

They drove him to the edge of the city and they showed him around the sprawling collective farm they were willing to gift him. But he needed more than a look round before coming to his decision.

“Nae point just looking lad. Tha' needs to feel the bloody soil. Properly. So I told them to bring a digger. A big un. Told em I needed a look at the soil. So they brought a digger and when they got ten feet down and soil were still pitch black, I told them to stop.”

I recall him going rather misty eyed as he described the most fertile soil he had ever seen. He told me he could get four tonnes of wheat off each and every acre. He told me he had never seen owt like it.
I asked him how and why. 

“Easy lad. Daft buggers haven’t farmed it for seventy years. It’s barely done owt. It’s just been left fallow.”

I have no idea if he ever went east to farm those acres of black soil. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. But it left me with a vivid picture. When I was sixteen I saw the surface view of those very same acres. I was on a school trip that took us through the Iron Curtain into the sinister Alice in Wonderland lunacy of the old Eastern Bloc. We traveled by coach. One long, hot day we made the drive south from Kiev to Odessa. It was hundreds of miles of wheat and corn and sunflowers. Flat, flat, flat. Weathered faces under head scarves. Horse drawn transport. No traffic on the roads. I hadn’t read any Tolstoy at that time, but if I had I would have felt like I was a part of one of his epic tales of the vastness of the Steppe.

Ukraine is the second largest country in Europe. After Russia. When I took my bus trip, the one was absorbed into the other. And it was impossible not to wonder how any country with such vast agricultural spaces could ever manage to leave its people hungry. By this time successive Bolshevik governments had conclusively proved that neither five year plans nor shipping people off to Siberia in cattle trucks were good ways of putting food on the table.

A couple of years after my school trip, I learned some of the reasons why this was the case in a university lecture hall. The topic was Soviet agriculture and why it was such a basket case. For seventy years the men in the Politbureau had enjoyed the same kind of cordial relationship with their farming community as the one Liverpool fans like me have with Man United fans.

When the currency crashed to worthlessness in the months after the 1917 October Revolution, the farmers refused to sell their grain to the cities. Why would they? They had no interest in being paid in worthless cash. So Trotsky got himself into the barter game. He looted every grand piano he could find in the grand houses of Moscow and Leningrad and stuck them on trains to the countryside. Once the loot arrived, his commissars swapped luxury goods for grain and somehow they contained the starvation in the cities to manageable levels.

This whole process really pissed Stalin off and he made his mind up that it would never about to happen again. He wasn’t the kind of guy who took kindly to being held over any kind of barrel. The problem? Pesky small farmers refusing to release their crops. The solution? Kill the bastards. He implemented a policy called De-Kulakisation (I guess we would call it de-smallfarmerisation. The supermarkets are quite good at it) In the early years of the 1930's, Stalin topped over 20 million small farmers and moved all agriculture in to huge collective farms where resident secret policemen kept everyone honest.

The problem was that the collective farms were a complete car crash when it came to turning out food and most of the time the people in the cities went hungry.

In the Seventies, the Politbureau decided to loosen their grip out of sheer desperation. They allowed 4% of the land on every collective to be farmed by the workers themselves and they were allowed to sell anything they produced in the market and keep the cash. It worked. By the late Seventies this 4% of land was producing over 70% of all Soviet food.

Human nature and all that.


It’s 1992 and the second largest country in Europe is all set to really become something. It has 50 million citizens itching to get a feel of what freedom is like in the flesh and they have gazillions of the best acres on planet Earth at their disposal.

What could go wrong?

Quite a lot as it turned out. Almost everything in fact. A few weeks ago I listened to a fascinating World Service documentary about the slow collapse of the Ukraine. There are no longer 52 million Ukrainians. The population has shrunk dramatically to just over 40 million. Why? Lots of reasons. When the EU opened up to Poland and the Baltic States, hundreds of thousands got on coaches and headed west for better paid work. They left a vacuum in their wake. So hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians headed west to fill the gap. Sure jobs in Warsaw or Riga were not as well paid as jobs in London or Berlin, but the cash was way better that jobs in Kiev or Lvov.

As the young up sticks and left, the old got sick. The health system creaked and almost collapsed. The older generation missed the certainly of the old Soviet days and started to drown their sorrows in a billion litres of vodka. Soon the average lifespan of Ukraine’s men was ten years less than that of its women.

An expert on the documentary laid out the bones of a bleak future. She predicted that by 2030 the population of the country was going to be down to just over thirty million: a fall of twenty million from Independence Day. Worse still, the projected population would be increasingly old and weary as the young people continued to go west. She said that there were serious doubts as to whether there would be enough people left to actually maintain a viable country.

And so once again, all of those millions upon millions of acres of prime black soil would be left untouched at a time when the nine billion people of planet earth need grain like never before.

The answer?

She had no answer. She wondered if anyone could ever come up with an answer. How can you come up with twenty million energetic young people in less than twenty years?


But it shouldn’t be impossible because of course we see these very people on the news every night. They are the ones paying for death rides across the Med in inflatable dinghies. And many if not most of these people have skills we in the west have largely forgotten. They know how to farm. They know how to maximise the potential from acres of black soil.

Would twenty million take up a similar offer to the one the Kiev Council made to my man from the outskirts of Leeds? Come East for twenty acres and a place of your own? A 21st Century version of the old Oregon Trail? Swap the RPG’s on the streets of Alleppo for a little house on the Ukrainian Steppe?

It has the look to me of a win, win situation.

Ukraine gets twenty million energetic young people who would become the very best of patriotic citizens.
Twenty million energetic young people get a chance to escape from murder, torture, famine and torture rooms.

And of course mankind gets the shelves filled from planet earth’s greatest larder.

If only basic common sense was allowed to prevail for once. If only the world could find a way of running itself as a World rather than a network of Glasgow style gangs of Neds, all ferociously defending their turf.
The fading, aging countries of the old west are crying out for an injection of new blood, but all most of us are frantically building higher fences. How would the people of the Ukraine react to twenty million immigrants coming along to save the day? Not well I think. We have all seen the Neo Nazis strutting their stuff in Independence Square. Logic and common sense are not a part of their world view.

So I guess we will continue to build our fences higher and higher and soon we will add watch towers complete with machine guns to hold the line. And we will hide on our side of the fence and get older and older until our countries are like vast old peoples homes and every acre of land lies fallow.

We are entering and era of walls and fences where common sense and practicality will be banished by wave  after wave of xenophobia.

Let’s face it, the human race is really, really good at being idiotic.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


You know what, I got to spend yesterday afternoon visiting royalty. I guess this might make the picture of Jack and I passing the time of day a tad confusing. A donkey? So where are the Corgis and the polo ponies then?
I sympathise with your confusion. I really do.

So here’s the thing. It wasn’t THAT royalty. You know. Britain’s most successful EU migrant family. Those upwardly mobile Germans from Saxe Coburg who have smashed all records for housing benefit payments. For most EU migrants residing in London, the £23,000 benefit cap can be a little restricting. I mean it is hard enough to get HMG to cover the rent on a two bed flat on the eighteenth floor of a Hackney high rise. So palaces tend to be out of the question. But not for the Saxe Coburgs. They managed to negotiate themselves an exemption and the rest is history.

But like I said. I wasn’t visiting THAT particular dynasty.

Instead I got the chance to spend some time with a representative of a very different dynasty. Which explains the presence of Jack the donkey in the picture.

Let’s wind the clock back for a moment or two. A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a lady who is running an animal sanctuary in Sanquhar. She told me that they were looking to provide some homeless accommodation for vagrant chickens. And she wondered if First Base would like to take the eggs from the rescued chucks and include them in our food parcels.
And I said yes, you bet we would. Of course we would. But in truth I really wasn’t listening properly. You see by this time the lady had introduced herself.


Well Alison is a perfectly nice name but not a name to set the brain running fast. Well, at least not my brain.

Alison’s surname however was a different matter entirely.


And so it was that while Alison ran through her plans to get into the rescued chicken game, my mind was running in geography mode. 

Sanquhar. Dumfries and Galloway. Population – 2000. Or thereabouts. Reason for existence in the first place? Coal. Lots and lots of Victorian coal.

A small coal mining village sitting atop the very same coalfield as another small coal mining village a few miles to the north.


A village that is now nothing more than a ghost village. A few overgrown bricks. A track that winds up into the bare hills and ends up nowhere at all. A place remembered by old photos of hard terraced streets in the midst of a Scottish wilderness.
And just like Saxe Coburg’s greatest claim to fame is being the home turf of a migrant family who made good in another country, Glenbuck’s most famous son did exactly the same.

We are talking of the king of the Kop here.

We’re talking Bill Shankly.

I did the maths. Sanquhar to Glenbuck? As the crow flies? Twenty miles maybe. Maybe even less.
Could it be?

Well it could.

Alison told me that she was married to the great man’s nephew.

I am sure such a revelation would be enough to make any true Liverpool fan lose their words. When I first walked into Anfield in the autumn of 1973, I remember staring in awe from my place on the Kop to where the great man was sitting in the dug out. He was Caesar in his Coliseum. A magnetic presence. In charge of everything. The team. The fans. All of it.

And this was not a king who had assumed his throne through marriage or birth. He was a warrior king who had taken his empire by the seismic force of his will power and charisma.
A small man from the Ayrshire coalfield who basically conquered the world of football. And of course we will never see his likes again. Sorry Brendan, but you are the very palest or pale shadows.
And here was a member of the great man’s dynasty offering free range eggs for our Foodbank. Life can be a truly crazy gig at times.

Would I like come along to check out the animal sanctuary? Well of course I would. And yesterday I did.


In 2013 Alison lost her son, Clark. She channeled the energy of her grief and created an animal sanctuary in his memory. Clarke had always loved animals and Clarke had always loved to see people happy. So the idea was a simple idea. Make a place where animals can make people happy.
She managed to buy a piece of land in the grounds of an abandoned brickworks half a mile outside the village and got on with building Clark’s Little Ark. And in my humble opinion, Alison and her many helpers have created a near perfect charity. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have all kinds of issues with the bullying super charities who seem hell bent of acting like Footsie 100 corporations. When was it that the Voluntary Sector went so slick and corporate? When was it that everything suddenly started to revolve around mission statements and branding and chief execs on six figure salaries ruling their roosts from offices with the right kind of London postcode?

You will find none of that at Clark’s Little Ark.

Instead you’ll find donkeys and ponies and ducks and a pig. And some of the nicest people you could ever meet. It costs a visitor nothing to visit. So on a sunny day families who struggle to make the weekly shop can take the kids for a walk up the hill out of the village to spend some time with the animals.

And it doesn’t cost a penny. Fresh air and good company and break from the relentless adverts on the spinning hours of daytime TV.

Buy this, buy this, buy this….

You need, you need, you need….

Rolling images of ever so perfect families in ever so perfect homes with ever so perfect pearly white teeth with the disposable income to buy their little treasures anything they want to buy them.
And what can you do when the TV keeps on telling your kids that proper TV parents take their kids on extra special days out? All the time. To McDonalds. To Burger King. To Disneyland.
Where do you go when even the cracks under the cushions on the couch have been drained of loose change? It is just another dismal brick in the walled in poverty that passes for day to day life for so many millions in Britain 2015.

Well the parents of Sanquhar DO have a place to go when the sun is shining. They can spend and hour or two in Clark’s Little Ark.

And it isn’t just a place for kids. Workers bring along clients with mental health problems. Probation Workers send along angry youngsters to do their community service time and to drain away their aggression in the calming company of the animals.

And it works for the simple reason that it is simple. All of the volunteers who help out Alison do so for the simple reason that they want to help. They want to contribute. They want to make life a bit better for people who really need their lives to be a bit better. There is nothing corporate or condescending.

And there is no judgement.

No forms to fill in. No intrusive questions. No condescending voices that treat everyone like they are five years old with learning difficulties.

No bloody means testing.

No questions about criminal records.

Just old fashioned friendliness. Of course it helps that Sanquhar is a mining community. It is in the DNA of mining communities all over the world to look after their own.
Nobody is being paid anything. Everyone is a volunteer. Every hutch and shed has been donated. Every fence and enclosure has been cobbled together from old pallets and planks by weekend handymen.

What a brilliant, brilliant place.

As I drove back down the Nith Valley to Dumfries I was reminded of a story I read about Bill Shanky’s first few days in the Anfield job way back in 1959. Liverpool was a complete car crash of a club when he walked through the doors. We were stone broke and facing relegation to the third division.

The stadium was falling apart and the training ground at Melwood was even worse. Bill took a look at the training pitches and he was appalled. They were covered in litter and broken glass and stones. They were not even close to being fit for purpose. So this what he did on his first morning.

He gathered up the squad and introduced himself. Then his asked the players to run laps around the pitch. He got is coaching staff together and handed them a bag each. He lined them up on the touch line with himself in the middle of the line. And then they slowly walked the length of the pitch picking up every piece of litter and every piece of broken glass and every stone.

Up and down they went.

Up and down.

For one day and then two days and then three days.

And all the while the players ran their laps and watched their new manager walk up and down and up and down until there was not a single bit of litter, glass or stone to be found on the training pitch.
And after watching him for three days, they were already his men. Ready to run through brick walls for him.

And over the next fifteen years they ran through brick wall after brick wall until Liverpool became the greatest football club on planet earth.

That was Bill keeping it simple. Bill the coal miner socialist who always got mucked in. Bill who could turn the simple things into magic things.

And as I drove I found a huge smile on my face at the thought of the great man looking down on Clark’s Little Ark.

It is his kind of place. Rooted a mile deep in the community. Made open and welcoming by people who just want to help other people out. The socialism of the old coalfields. Plain, uncomplicated decency.

When we reached the cup final in 1965 thousands of fans wrote to Bill asking for his help in getting a ticket to the game. Wembley wasn’t even close enough to being big enough for him to be able to make it happen. Instead he sat in his office for night after night writing letters of apology. By hand. And he addressed every envelope by hand. And he licked every stamp. Because these were his people. And he saw it was the right thing to do.

A simple thing.

No wonder we still take a moment to nod to his statue at the back of the Kop.

It really made my day to find his old generous, socialist spirit alive and kicking like a mule in Clark’s Little Ark.  

I was bowled over when I arrived. One of the volunteers had a cheque for me. £300. It was from an Edinburgh reader of this blog and had sent it down to her as a Sanquhar reader of this blog. This kind of jaw dropping generosity never ceases to make my jaw drop.

Here is the link to the Clark's Little Ark Facebook page.

They have a feed bill which runs to £3000 a year and there can be fewer better homes for a few quid. They deserve all the support they get. Many thanks for a truly uplifting afternoon guys.