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.

Saturday, April 30, 2016


Every now and then people ask me why I write this blog. I hope the answer I give is an honest one. I think it is. As far as I am concerned, most of my blogs are a part of my job of managing the First Base Agency which among other things is a foodbank. Ours is a door people walk through when their lives have hit the bricks. Crashed and burned. Gone down the tube. We see a lot of the forgotten people who live in the dismal half world at the very bottom of Britain's ladder. Their lives are quiet tragedies which nobody much cares much about. I guess they are the forgotten people.

These people have no voice. And so it has always seemed to me as a person who has written 23 novels that part and parcel of my job should be to do my level best to provide a voice. To tell their dismal stories. To shine something of a light on the way they are being treated.

So that is what I try to do. When I started the thing off I never ceased to be amazed when more than ten people found their way to reading the stories I had to tell. Then slowly but surely I found more and more readers were eager to hear the voice of First Base's forgotten people. As I write this, the 'Page Visits' counter on my page tells me almost 350,000 people have chosen turn up and survey the bleak little pictures of modern Britain I do my best paint.

But this is a very different blog. I guess you could call it an effort at self-therapy. Catharsis. An attempt to clear the spiders that have been crawling through my brain for the last few days. I guess it is a case of putting my money where my mouth is. For years I have sat quietly whilst all kinds of clients have drained the poison from their souls. Young female heroin addicts burying memories of beatings and rape. Skin deep hard men forever using violence to blank out what a so called uncle did to them when they were eight years old. Ex Soldiers trying to find a way of live with things they once did in the name of their Queen. And sometimes I suggest they get a pen and some paper and write it down. All of it. Like lancing a boil. Like throwing up a manically swigged bottle of scotch. Use words like bleach to scrub the soul.

Does it work? For some. For others not so much. And most don't try it at all. In the end the human brain is one of the last undiscovered horizons. There is no right or wrong way. We are all so very, very different.

I remember one lad telling me how after twenty tortuous years he finally found a way to break the stranglehold the childhood abuse he had suffered in a 1970's borstal had held him in. He took a pen. He took a piece of paper. And he wrote it all down. All of it. Every last festering detail. Then he screwed the paper into a ball and entombed it with a whole fat roll of sellotape. And then for five lunatic minutes he attacked the makeshift ball. Like a maniac. Like a psychopath. Screaming and swearing and dripping sweat. And all the while all the other lads in the rehab cheered him on like the crowd must have once roared on the gladiators in the Coliseum. And when it was all over the poison was purged. The spiders in his brain were evicted. Finally he was able to resist the honeyed whispered lure of heroin. He found he didn't need it any more.

The very moment the jury of nine wound up two years worth of the coroner's Inquiry into Hillsborough, I felt a dam burst in my head. At first I put it down to nothing more than an explosion of emotion. I don't cry much, but when the answer to Question Number 7 exonerated the Liverpool fans of all blame, I found my cheeks were soaked. I felt relieved I was on my own. Sitting behind the wheel of my van. Parked up in the middle of a million acres of Scottish nowhere.

It passed.

I smoked a couple of cigarettes and semi absorbed what people were saying on the radio. Then I got on with day. And I waited for things to normalise.

But they didn't normalise. Instead there were spiders in my head. Lots of them. Spiders on speed. Spiders like a mob of hyper active kids. Itching, scratching, teeming bastard things.

For years I have considered myself to be one of the lucky ones. I wasn't one of the 96 who died. I wasn't one of the hundreds who were injured. Lady Luck saw me turn right rather than enter the tunnel of death a mere matter of seconds before Duckenfield ordered the gate opened. Before a few square feet of crumbling concrete were turned into hell. I was on the right side of the cage. The side where you didn't die. A mere few feet away from a massacre. Able to breathe. Able to live.

And for years I felt hugely lucky to have avoided the mental wreckage so many of my fellow survivors have been afflicted with. From time to time I would hear of the suicides and divorces and alcoholism and drug addiction. I was never signed off sick. I never had to beg my GP for anti depressants or my smack dealer for a line of credit. My brain managed to process what it had witnessed.

Triggers? Again I was one of the lucky ones. I have learned a lot about triggers over the last few years from talking with clients of our Veterans Project. Sights and smells and sounds to transport a person back to a moment of trauma. A moment of blind terror and shame and guilt. One young lad with raw desperate eyes told me how he had lost his job in Tesco. I said that he had no problems with the afternoon shift. It was the morning shift that did for him. Because in the morning they baked bread. In the mornings the store would fill up with the smell of fresh baked loaves. For most of us this is a favourite smell. But not this lad. For this lad the smell of baking bread took him straight back to Helmand Province. It had been the smell in his nostrils on two separate occasions when mates had been blown to bits by roadside bombs. One minute he would be working quietly away. The next minute he would be all over place. Off on one. Way too far out of line for the management of the store. And he could never find the words to tell them how the smell of the bakery took him back to the worst place in the world.

I only have two triggers which carry me back to 15 April 1989. There is the smell of hot dogs and fried onions on a very particular kind of spring day. A few years ago this was common enough but not any more. Street hot dog stands seem to have gone the same way as coal mines and shipyards.

And then there is a sound rather than a smell. Think news items about famine zones. Think of a flatbed truck loaded up with fifty kilo hessian sacks of flour. Imagine sound it would make if someone dropped one of those sacks down onto a concrete floor. It is a very particular sound and not a common sound. It is a sound you hardly ever hear. Thank Christ. Because it is the very same sound as an inert body makes when you push it up and over a South Yorkshire steel fence and down onto a South Yorkshire floor. The sound of dead meat.

So. Not dead. Not injured. And afflicted by two triggers that hardly ever happen. Like I said. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. One of the luckiest.

And then things changed the very second the answer to question 7 was 'NO.' I haven't felt right since. Listless. Lethargic. A stomach full of inexplicable doom. Spiders in the head. And a feeling of guilt that doesn't want to go away. I tried to explain it to my two sons on Thursday night when we went to the pub to watch the Reds in the Europa League semi final. I couldn't seem to engage with the pictures on the screen. It didn't seem to matter somehow. More to the point, I felt if I allowed it to matter I would somehow be letting the dead down. And of course there was no logic to it. There never is. Just spiders. Just a general feeling of emptiness and doom. And way back in the back of my mind is the feeling that maybe I should have done more. On the day. In the years that followed. When I gave my first statement to the police. When I appeared at the Inquiry. Had I really done as much as I could have done?

And no matter how hard I try, I cannot seem to make the answer into a yes. Hence the spiders. And already I am sick of the spiders. And the constant sense of … of what? It's impossible to describe. Foreboding? Emptiness? Rage? A mix of all sorts.

Whatever it is, I need it to go away. So like I said. This is an effort to practice what I preach. Write it down. But I'm not going to print it out and wrap it in sellotape and attack it with twenty seven years worth of bottled up fury.

No. I'm going to proof read it for typos. And being as dyslexic as I usually am, I will miss most of them. And then I will click the 'Publish' button.

And then I will send these words spiraling away into the ether. Hopefully the bastard spiders with go along with them.   


  1. Mark, hang on in there. I have no good answers to help you out, but the explanation that this is not an unusual expects release, closure, and yet it's like a version of hangover, coming out mental or physical...your mind and or body trying to deal with it all. The thing is, endings don't happen nicely in line with expectation, and even if the truth is out, it sounds like you cannot accept a 'win'...well of course you can't because all the truth and justice in the world doesn't actually change what happened. You cannot return To 'normal' because that day is going to be part of your identity for ever. I guess it's a case of learning to deal with a different part of ptsd, which is effectively what such an event has caused. I had my own 'event' very early in life. It never leaves, it is part of who I am, in some ways made me a 'better' person, in many ways severely impacted on my life's chances... But all I can say is, be kind to yourself, don't expect too much catharsis all at once. Your reaction to the match is quite interesting, and dare one say, appropriate, it confirms your brain trying to make sense of something deeper and bigger than you can understand or cope with right now. You are living proof of the only thing that I drew from my own 'event'... Realising the importance of living, even when that is just surviving, and making the most of the life you have, because you have it! I know that you do this, I know few other people who really do, but I think when one has confronted the reality of death, one is in a position to understand the responsibility of life. Now you will be even better at empathising with the folk you do so much to offer help to, but do allow that this is going to stay with you in some way, for ever, and that it will take time to work out how best you live the life others were deprived of. You did and keep doing all you can. Stay strong and keep on writing!

    1. Wise words and kind words which I will take on board. By the way, as a fellow writer you will be pleased to know that writing it down and sending it out seems to have done me some good.

  2. Mark,

    I hope writing this gave you some catharsis. It is important to justice that you spoke out, it is important to me that voices like yours are not diminished. We need people to speak out, it is our only defence.

    You said:

    And a feeling of guilt that doesn't want to go away.

    You didn't do this.

    You were a witness to it. There is a huge distinction between being a witness or a. A what? Perpetrator, cover upper, slow clock?

    I recall Rachell North's book, 'Out of the Tunnel' and the optimism that she felt, sometimes, and not othertimes.

    If you recall, she was a victim of 7/7.

    She did not seek revenge nor spiders in her brain. She drank a few gin's and split the lunatics from Muslim's generally.

    Sadly, Rachel North has gone off the radar now. I worry for her.


    You do good. You should set those brain spiders aside. For the likes of you and Rachel North that have seen the worst that this country can offer you, will not break you and will not immiserate you.

    Chin up.

  3. If you haven't read her book, I can pass it on to you. Just contact me.

  4. I noted, Mark, from your reply to Cally Phillips that you thought that the writing of it had in fact helped. So your advice to others was good.

    As you say, it doesn't work for everyone, but it does for some. Another way to do the same thing is to talk it out, to yourself, on a long walk in the country away from people.

    I'm glad that it helped.

    As others have said, you didn't cause this, you didn't contribute to it. Indeed you contributed to its partial resolution.

    I know that that doesn't matter to you right now. What matters is that it is imprinted on your brain. It always will be, Mark. And just like after it happened, now it is haunting you. It's at the front of your thoughts.

    But it will, I suspect, pass. Probably because, at least in part, of what you do...of who you are.

    You may have some hard times, but you know that when First Base is open again on Monday, or Tuesday, there will be people who need you.

    They need you, your kindness, your wisdom and your love, even more than they need the food parcels that you will give them. And that will help you to put your demons in the past.

    Perhaps the reason you are so devoted to, and effective in, what you do is that you have suffered too. You don't just sympathise, you empathise.

    I suspect that, no, I'm certain that, there was nothing more that you could have done on the day. Hardly. The police, the ambulance service were there. What was a young lad going to do that they couldn't?

    And there was nothing you could do about the concerted efforts of the establishment from Prime Minister (or even Queen) down to cover it up.

    What you did do when you had the chance, was speak up, and speak loud.

    Then you turned your life to helping people who needed help. And you've made a difference.

    You'll maybe need to take a while out from time to time, to reflect, to think, to mourn, but remember all the time that your only contribution to this situation was to do good.

    And quite outwith Hillsborough, I suspect you have done a great deal more good than harm in your life.

    I sincerely hope that you have found a way through it.



  5. Thanks Tris. Your words are genuinely appreciated