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, June 14, 2017


A couple of weeks ago the BBC staged their much trailed election debate in Leeds. Except it wasn't an actual debate of course. Not in the traditional sense of two contenders taking each other on. No. Not that. It was more a case of Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May being in the same building. At the same time. In West Yorkshire.

The BBC took the opportunity to give the floor to a procession of angry old white men with brick red faces. Each and every one was outraged by Jeremy Corbyn's visible reluctance to press the nuclear button. There was much talk of North Korea or 'some idiot in Iran.' It was made clear to the viewer the defence debate was all about our treasured nukes and who would be the best person to let them fly.

This is odd really. In the last two elections there has barely been a mention of the prospect of nuclear war and all it entails. Maybe this was because all parties shared an equal enthusiasm for ending life as we know it in the name of looking tough for the tabloid media. Thankfully a note of sanity was introduced to proceedings when a young lady wondered aloud why so many people in the room seemed so very keen to murder hundreds of thousands of people.

Why indeed?

What was completely missing from the 90 minutes of so called debate was any talk about our recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. You would have thought these wars would have been rather more relevant than the hypothetical question of whether it might one day be a good idea to burn alive an unknown number of innocent civilians in an as yet unknown location.

But no. Iraq and Afghanistan are already yesterday's news, as are the 150,000 men and women who fought in the name of political show boating. Time to move on, right? That was then, this is now. The red faced white men seemed to have little to say about our recent humiliating defeats in far away lands.

This is nothing new of course. Wars come an go and they are soon forgotten. The ones we lose are very, very soon forgotten. And those who did the fighting and the dying?


They certainly warranted no kind of mention in the big debate. Instead it is left to the likes of First Base to try to pick up the pieces of thousands of utterly fractured lives. We are the king's horses and king's men.

They are Humpty Dumpty.

Iraq and Afghanistan were the wall where the great fall happened.

The cameras were rolling when they sat on the wall. Every night we watched them in dusty streets and shallow drainage ditches. We watched the air strikes called in. We watched the coffins coming home. We heard all about the desperate lack of helicopters and body armour.

Not any more. Old news is old news and humiliating defeat is best forgotten. How much better it is to focus on 'some idiot in Iran' and a Prime Minister who stood tall in the House of Commons and told us all she would be more than willing to murder a hundred thousand people if that was what it would take to demonstrate strength and stability.

And the mess of Iraq and Afghanistan? The fallout? Oh bugger that. Too much like hard work. Too much of a bad look.

So in the end the job of being all the king's horses and all the king's men is left to the likes of First Base. It is for us to take the day trips into the dark corners where the fading memories of Helmand and Basra now reside.

This was how I spent yesterday afternoon: an excursion into one of the dark corners. One of the forgotten places where the mess of Blair's wars have been swept to one side. And hidden. And forgotten.

It isn't a long drive. Only a third of a mile. Over the river and the speed bumps. A familiar small sign into an unremarkable road.

'HMP Dumfries'.

Then 'No visitors' beyond this point'. The car park is quieter than usual. Sometimes I have to turn around and park where I can. But not today. Today there are places enough.

It is still lunch hour for the primary school next to the jail. High pitched kids' screams go along with manic football and hop scotch: maybe even games of war, but probably not. Not any more. Not like it was in my primary school days when we used the lunch hour to play out John Wayne and Rob Mitchum doing their thing at Iwo Jima or Omaha Beach.

I ring and the big lock clicks. The first time I visited the jail I didn't know to listen out for the click. I got an annoyed voice through the speaker. But now the click is more than enough. I guess it means I'm an old hand.

Which I am. What will this be? My tenth time? Fifteenth? Journeys through the wire to see the young men who once manned the front lines of the great War on Terror.

A familiar face loudly greets me from the desk. Big Tam. Once upon a time a 'Tanky', all primed and ready to meet the advancing Red Army on the North German plain. Back in the days when Germany was split asunder by the kind of wall Trump can only dream of.

We pass the time of day as he copies down the key details from my driving licence. And today there is something new. Just stand here can you, whilst we take your picture. I stand. Soon my mugshot is on a computer screen. And now it is on a freshly minted plastic ID card announcing me as a fully accredited visitor to the Scottish Prison Service.

Airport style metal detection. Do I have a phone? Just go through here. That's it. I am not on my own. With me on their way through the security checks are three hard faced women. Stick thin arms wrapped in tattoos. Saturday night clothes on a Tuesday afternoon. Clattering heels on the polished floor. Eyes as unyielding as pebbles on a beach.

A female warder takes one look at them and puts on her disposable gloves. Ah, the endless mini humiliations of the fifty year war on drugs. The hard faced ladies are guided to the waiting area. But I am already on my way, for I now have my freshly minted SPS ID card dangling from my neck.

Tam locks and unlocks a series of heavy doors as we make our way to the Link Centre. Prisoners in sweatshirts and joggers nod to him and grin. Usually I know a few of them, but not today. As ever the atmosphere is easy. Relaxed. Dumfries is everything a jail should be. And we the tax payer still own every brick. The vultures of the private sector are locked out every bit as securely as the 170 cons are locked in.

My man is already waiting. Shall I call him Mike? Why not. I have already met him twice on the outside. Then it was all about trying to calm him down enough to keep him from ending up where he has ended up.


For 80 days. 40 if he behaves himself. He looks like a teenager in his sweat shirt and joggers. His hair is shorter and his complexion is healthier. He is far from what most people picture when they envisage one of the warriors who fought our War on Terror.

I guess he might just about tip the scales at ten stones. Maybe not. He is the kind of Scottish lad who has manned the British front lines for hundreds of years. All attitude and red hair. Stuck out ears and at least three 'fuck's' in every barked out sentence. He exudes the constant lariness of the Glasgow scheme where he once cut his cloth.

And I know only too well what is coming next. And it comes. The tirade. The long list of people who are nothing but pure cunts so they are. The police, the psychiatrists, the social, the Sheriff, his ex. Molten, spat out words. Three 'fucks' to every sentence.

I sit back and let him run. It won't last forever. And it doesn't. He dances his angry dance and then his tensed up limbs start to relax. He tells me about going pure fucking mental in his cell. Trying to punch ten shades of fuck out of the metal door. Anger rising up and through him in waves. Milk over boiling out of the pan and all over the hob.

Medication cut back. But then a grudging admission. Maybe it is actually working a bit better when taken three times a day like it says on the bottle. Instead of gubbing the whole fucking lot as soon as he steps out of the chemist. Why? Maybe a half hearted suicide attempt? Maybe yet another fuck you. Fuck everyone. Fuck it all. Fuck knows.

I ask him if the paranoia is starting to beat a retreat yet? After 21 days off the dope? And he rears up and defends his beloved cannabis as stoutly as he once defended his Forward Operating Base in Helmand. He is outraged about me questioning his best friend. It keeps him calm. It keeps the rage in check. It loves him like he loves it and that's all there is fucking to it. So fuck off, right?

I shrug. Maybe best if we agree to disagree. Work in progress. I park the cannabis thing and we talk about how it is going to be when he gets out. Not much attitude now. Points have been proved. No more bravado required. Instead he allows himself to be a frightened young man who can't understand where the person he used to be has gone. And who is he now? And will it always be this way, one minute angry enough to kill, the next minute crying like a bairn, and the minute after that laughing like absolute fuck.

And suddenly he is honest about his terror that he might actually kill someone when the red mist takes a hold. I do my shut up and listen thing. Then we make arrangements for when he gets out in a couple of weeks. He says he will come straight into First Base. No fucking way is he going to make a beeline for the lads to blow all his liberation grant on vodka and dope. No fucking way.

Maybe not. We'll see. I wouldn't put the mortgage on it. Mike's brain is still a bowl of spaghetti. The memories of Helmand are still upon him like gnawing rats. It isn't going away. Not nearly. And he is still at the stage where he is hanging on the belief that all the medication and booze and dope will one day bring him some quiet. Some peace. Some relief.

They won't of course. Instead these false gods will see him in and out of the jail until he knocks them on the head and stops looking for chemical short cuts.

I hope he'll get there. And I hope he'll get there before he destroys his health and earns himself a criminal record to make any kind of employment all but impossible.

I hope so. He's lucky to have landed up in HMP Dumfries where there are plenty of good people to look out for him. And I am confident we will be able to cobble together enough resources to help Mike to get himself onto the right track. So long as he wants to do that. Time will tell. But resources are getting thinner all the time as the memories of the War on Terror start to fade away leaving tens of thousands of guys like Mike in pieces.

We finish up and I am guided back through all the heavy doors to the reception area. The hard faced women are nowhere to be seen. I leave my shiny new badge on the counter, ready for the next time. Ready for the next Mike.

Outside play time is over the sun is out. I light up and take the smoke as far down as it will go. And I think of the great debate where the BBC allowed defence talk to revolve around mass murder in the name of 'some idiot in Iran'

And no time to consider what we all might do for the likes of Mike.

Same old, same old.      


  1. Thanks Mark, for reminding me what's important and what we have to keep working for.

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