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.

Thursday, August 23, 2018


I make no claims to be any great expert on the prison system. That said, I reckon I know more than most. I have never been a prisoner myself. Thankfully. However, I have been a visitor to lots of Scottish jails over the years – Dumfries, Barlinnie, Addiewell, Polmont, Shotts. And yes, I never lose the very particular feeling which runs up and down my spine every time I make my way through the front door. And yes, I never lose the feeling of huge surging relief when I step back outside and light up to mix some craved nicotine in with a world's worth of free air. And every time I thank my lucky stars to be doing so.

Prisons aren't great places. Nor should they be. Yet I have never failed to be impressed by what I have found behind the razor wire. I firmly believe all institutions have their own particular feel. Their own mood. We do lots of work in schools and it is never hard to tell the badly run, failing school from the well managed, thriving school. Hospitals are the same. Offices are the same. You pretty well know it within five minutes of walking through the door.

You form an impression from body language. Expressions. A tone of voice. The way people interact with each other. The way they carry themselves. There is a very particular body language dance when it comes to oppressors and the oppressed. I saw it in on the streets of the old East Germany and the occupied territories of the West Bank. When one side holds all the weapons and all the power. When one side is willing and ready to impose its rules with a baton or a rifle butt. You can feel oppression in your bones. It seeps out of the bricks.

Never once have I had that feeling in a Scottish Prison. Not Polmont where the young dafties were once sent. Not in Shotts where the lifers count down the years.

A few years ago, I would often hear complaints from clients released from short term sentences for low level thieving. Three month sentences and six weeks served. Out before there had been any kind of rehabilitation programmes. And this always bugged me. The twenty year guys in Shotts were taking degrees and learning all manner of skills. The short term guys in Dumfries were barely processed before being sent back out onto the streets.

One client in particular would rant on about this. Andrew was a twenty first century version of the Artful Dodger. With a clear head, he was as good a thief as his Dickensian forerunner. With twenty or thirty blue valium hurtling round a deep-fried brain, he was the worst shoplifter in the world. He was always 100% convinced he was invisible. Oops. He wasn't. Three months. Four months. The cycle. The revolving door.

When they let him out, he would invest £10 of his liberation grant on a soothing tenner back of smack before heading our way to rage against the system. Every time they locked him up, he would put his name down for reading and writing classes. And every time he neared the top of the list, they would let him back out again. Andrew was one of the smartest lads I have ever met. In a parallel universe, he could have been a barrister, a City wide boy, more or less anything. He had been a bad boy from the age of eight and played far too much truant to ever stand a chance of learning to read and write properly. By the time he became a First Base regular, he regretted this and was determined to put it right. He saw jail time as his best chance of learning and he often wished he could be locked up for longer. 

Hell, I wished they could have locked him up for longer. A full year served would have been enough to clear his brain of valium and heroin. A full year served might have been enough for his huge IQ to be properly reflected by newly acquired reading and writing skills. A year served might have been enough to get him clear of his endlessly chaotic life.

Sadly he never served a full year and he died of an overdose before he made it to twenty five.

This doesn't happen any more. Thankfully the Edinburgh Government has chosen to completely ignore the 'lock em up and throw away the key brigade' of the Daily Mail. Now, nickel and dime offenses mean community service time which almost always leads to less re-offending. There is a new rule of thumb. If a sentence is going to mean less than a year served, Sheriffs are strongly urged to go down the community service route and avoid jail time.

This is good news on all kind of different levels. As a taxpayer, I am delighted my money is not being wasted. Every time we send the likes of Andrew off for a short sentence, it costs us £5000 a month. For what? It makes them much more likely to re-offend and ensures the jails are packed like sardine tins. Every bit of research tells us prison is the punishment most likely to breed serial offenders. Of course, the Mail and its grey-haired readers care nothing for research. Experts are so last year in Brexit Britain. They want people locked up regardless. The Westminster Government always doffs its cap to the Daily Mail. Thankfully, the Edinburgh Government tends to give them the finger. Three cheers to that.

Now jails are largely reserved for the more serious offenders. This means they are seldom overcrowded. This means there is less tension. The prison management gets the chance to undertake rehabilitation work rather than trying to keep a lid on the ever present likelihood of a riot.

This hasn't always been the case. Not remotely so. In pre-devolution times when Scottish jails were run from London, north of the border prisons were among the most notorious. The likes of Barlinnie and Peterhead outdid category 'A' Texan prisons when it came to wall to wall brutality. In 1935, twice as many inmates died in Peterhead than in Hitler's newly opened Dachau.

A few months ago, the Prison warders in England went out on strike. They reached an 'enough is enough' moment. Too much violence. Too many rats. Too little training. Too many drugs. Too much lockdown. Too little rehabilitation. Their workplace had become a living nightmare on the back of endless cuts.

They found themselves in the midst of a perfect storm. The Westminster Government slashed the prison budget by 40% whilst at the same time pandering to the demands of the tabloid press and locking up more and more convicts. As conditions descended into a pit of unmanageable violence, filth, and squalor, the warders could see the writing on the wall. They were working in places which were about to explode.

At that time I was in and out of the local jail seeing clients. I asked the warders if they were considering strike action themselves? No. Things are different up here. We don't have those problems up here.

And they were proved right. As the English prisons slid ever further into a fetid pit of violence, self-harm, and suicide our Scottish jails have retained a relative calm.

So are we spending a whole lot more money on our jails? No. So why is there such a chasm of difference? I guess the full answer to such a question is well above my pay grade. That said, a few things seem pretty bloody obvious.

We haven't traveled the dreaded privatisation road. We have only one privatised jail – Kilmarnock. And it is our worst nick by a mile. We have three clients who went into Kilmarnock having never touched a hard drug in their lives only to emerge a few months later as full blown heroin addicts.

Next up, our probation service is still a proper probation service, not a privatised mess. Our probation workers are experienced professionals who have the time and resources to do rehabilitation rather than box ticking.

Our system is based on a rather quaint idea. You find out what is working best and you do more of it. And you find out what isn't working well and you do less of it. One is tempted to say 'Duh!' It's obvious, right? Well, not to the London Government. Instead of deploying common sense, they choose instead to do what the screaming headlines of the Daily Mail demand of them.

And time and again they wheel out identikit ministers to extol the virtues of the private sector and they actually seem genuinely surprised when everything starts to go to hell in a handcart. It really is ridiculously simple when you give it a minute's thought. Any business looks to achieve maximum turnover and minimum costs. This means maximum profits, happy shareholders and eye-watering bonuses for the Board. When you transplant this mentality into the prison system, it soon becomes an accident waiting to happen. The business wants as many prisoners as possible to generate as much revenue as possible. They also want to spend as little as possible on keeping these prisoners. Worse food. More lockdown. Warders earning 60% of the salaries of their Public sector counterparts. 

In this world, prisoners soon become nothing more than units: units worth £60,000 a year. Nice money if you can get it, right? In America, they have a newly minted term for this. They call it the Prison Industrial Complex.

Is this why the tabloids are so keen to get four cons into every English cell? Where else can you make £240,000 a year's worth of gross profit out of a space of 10 foot by 6 foot? Not even Belgravia property gives that kind of return.

So here we are yet again. As the evening news is filled with horror stories about English jails, nobody is pointing out just how different things are north of the border. Just imagine if it was the other way round! Bloody hell. The BBC would be running ten-hour specials. Every night. Sophie Rowarth would be living out of tent pitched by the Barlinnie gates.

Why are we so bloody awful at shouting from the rooftops? At stating the obvious in such a way the obvious cannot be ignored? Why are our leaders so scared to point out just how much better our schools, hospitals, and prisons are when compared to those south of the border? When will we stop acting like a frightened colony and grow a pair?

So come on guys. It's time to grit your teeth and get out of the comfort zone. If we do things better than England, we need to say it: shout it. And stop the endless cap doffing and politeness.

Nobody ever got themselves free of London rule by making nice.

Saturday, August 18, 2018



After six years, 363 blogs and 860,000 visits to this page, the time has come for me to have a go at penning the most important words I have ever written. If the next couple of thousand words find a way to hit the sweet spot, then this blog will transform hundreds of lives: maybe even thousands. And if the chosen words fail? Then I guess I will have failed as well.

When I first started writing this blog in 2012, my main intention was to promote my books. But things soon changed. Soon this page became a platform for flagging up all kinds of important stuff. When you work in a foodbank, you get a front row view of where things are going wrong. Abject poverty. Dreadful injustice. Withering addictions. Wrecked minds. Broken soldiers. People lost and never found.

For six years I have used this page to tell the stories of people the world seems to have forgotten. Discarded. Judged and dropped. People living out a semblance of a life in the twilight world at the bottom of the ladder.

Twice I blogged in desperation when First Base faced the prospect of running out of cash. On both occasions the community came through for us and we managed to survive. Which means we will get to help out twenty or so people with an emergency food parcel today.

And tomorrow.

And the day after that.

Over the last fifteen years we have helped out over 60,000 people in their time of need. Have we fixed every problem in their lives? Of course we haven't. We've put a band aid on the wound. Tided them over. Got them over a hump. Stopped them being hungry through a long cold night.

And there are times when we all need a band aid. A band aid stops the bleeding. A band aid solves the immediate problem. However it doesn't stop us from getting cut again. When someone hasn't eaten for a few days, food is their number one priority. Of course it is. When you haven't eaten for a few days, a food parcel can feel like the best thing in the world.

Have we changed any of the huge forces which are causing so many people to be unable to feed themselves? Of course we haven't. How can we? We are just a small charity in a small town. We don't make the weather. All we can do is provide umbrellas.

So why is this blog different? Let me have a go at explaining.

A year ago I was out and about walking the dogs with a BBC World Service podcast in my ears. The programme was all about the problems faced by Uganda and its young population. And out of a clear blue sky, a simple fact jumped into my head like an Israeli paratrooper.

It got my attention. Big time.

School girls in Uganda miss up to 25% of their education. Why? Because their families cannot afford to buy sanitary pads for them.

What a huge problem. And yet, it was a huge problem with an unbelievably simple solution.

Provide sanitary pads.

So I walked back home and played the podcast to Carol. 

She told me she had heard a remarkably similar programme from another developing country. Quite a co-incidence.

So what do you think? Do you think this is something we could try and help out with? In Africa? In Uganda?

She did. 

And we did - last November. 

We wanted to prove to ourselves it was possible to make a difference. Thankfully it was entirely possible. We met all kinds of great people and established a means to make things happen.

Instead of yet more words, I will refer you to the five minute video we have thanks to the kindness and talent of Al at Phantom Power films which is posted on a new website we have thanks to the kindness and talent of Creatomatic. It never ceases to amaze me how great people are.

Here it is.

So that was November. What happened next?


In Uganda lots of good things have happened at the Kamuganguzi Janan Luwum Memorial school. There have been big falls in both absenteeism and infections. As the word has spread of the availability of sanitary pads, more and more girls have joined the school. When we were there in November, there were 250 girls on the school roll. Now there are 330 girls. It looks like they have voted with their feet.

In Scotland, we have worked our way through the tortuous process of setting up a new charity. It has taken a while, but we've finally made it.

The Kupata Project.

'Kupata is Swahili for 'secure'.

We have an excellent team of Trustees - Carol, me, an accountant, an MSP, a local councillor and an African migrant.

Our ethos? Our mission statement? Well that is simple enough.

The Kupata Project will have
NO paid staff, NO fancy offices, NO overheads, NO travel expenses for trips to Uganda.

Basically we will only have two running costs. Very modest expenses for our two wonderful young volunteers in Uganda and the cost of producing a yearly set of accounts for OSCR - the Scottish Charity Regulator.

Otherwise every single, last penny we raise will be spent on providing sanitary pads to the girls.

Already there is a growing list of schools who are asking for help.

Over the next year we hope to gather plenty of evidence. Then we will be well set to make lots of applications for funding.

With luck and a following wind, we will make the Kupata Project fly.

A couple of final points.

For fifteen years, First Base has been in the business of giving out band aids. More and more and more band aids. And all the while things have kept on getting worse. And worse. There is nothing we can do to hold back the growing tide of need. We will continue to do everything in our power to ensure everyone who comes through our doors will receive the food they need to keep body and soul together. We have never turned anyone away in 15 years due to a lack of food and we are determined to keep this proud record going.

Happily, thanks to a successful funding bid to the Scottish Government, First Base now provides free sanitary pads from all the 25 locations which stock our food parcels across Dumfries and Galloway. This mirrors the situation across Scotland where the Government is about to make free sanitary ware available to all school girls and students. Only last week, North Ayrshire Council installed dispensing machines for free sanitary ware in the ladies toilets in every library. 

The Kupata Project faces a far greater challenge, but one we all feel inspired to take on. Providing sanitary pads for school girls in Uganda is all about investing in the future. The drive and creativity the young people of Africa show every day is truly something to behold. As the countries of the West get older and more and more exhausted, Africa's youthful millions are absolutely the future.

And education is everything.

Regular readers of this blog will know I tend to view most things through the lens of Scottish Independence. Fair enough. Ever since the Brexit vote, the Johnson/Rees Mogg brigade have been painting ridiculous pictures of some kind of re-awakening of the British Empire. In their arrogant, deluded imaginations they seriously seem to think all the old colonies will form a queue at London's door to go back to the good old days.

How completely and utterly ridiculous.

However, a very different future awaits an Independent Scotland. One day we will join the list of all those other countries who have found a way to free themselves from London Rule. One day we will also be an ex colony.

And then we will have huge opportunities to forge links with all the others. We will become a fellow traveller. A kindred spirit. A brother in arms.

Scotland and Uganda share much in common. We are both drop dead gorgeous places with vast untapped potential. We are both having to deal with the aftermath of being robbed blind and asset stripped by London. We both have our best years ahead of us.

Every girl who receives her first pack of sanitary ware also receives a post card carrying a very simple message.

'To you from the people of Scotland'

It is a message they will not forget in a hurry. Fair enough, London doesn't allow us any say on Foreign Policy right now. But it doesn't mean we can't make a start. Forge links. Build partnerships from the bottom up. Get the word out that Scotland is different. We aren't about nuclear weapons and illegal wars and rampant jingoism.

All of which means sanitary pads are not like band aids. Instead, they are an investment. An investment in the future of every girl who gets the chance of 25% more school. And an investment in the future of an Independent Scotland.

Well, I guess it's time for the nuts and bolts. 

£6 buys a year's worth of sanitary pads for a Ugandan school girl. If you want to make this happen, please follow the link below.

So. That's my best shot I guess. Time to light up, cross the fingers and hit the 'Publish' button. If you've made it this far, I guess you can see why this is by far the most important blog I have ever written. 

One more time. Here's the link.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018


On Monday morning I chained myself to my laptop and forced myself to get on with a put off task - the dreaded accounts. It didn't take so very long for me to be reminded of a lesson once hammered into me in the days when I was a company director.

If you can't measure, you can't manage.

As I worked through piles of receipts, a sense of unease started to take hold. And slowly but surely the spreadsheets started to look more than a little alarming. 

So fair enough, we have been a bit busier over the first four months of this financial year. But not that much busier. 10% up, I guess. And fair enough the amount of food donations coming in through the back door has dropped a little. But once again, not by that much. Maybe 10%. It isn't like we have lost any of our donors. The same volunteers from the same churches and offices still arrive with car boots filled with the same carrier bags. But there are 10% less bags.

So. 10% more going out through the front door and 10% less coming in through the back door. A 20% swing. A fifth. So OK. A fifth is quite a lot.

But I knew this already. I knew we were placing more and more orders for deliveries from Tesco and Asda and Morrisons. But I was pretty sure this wasn't another 2010 when the numbers of parcels headed out through the front door jumped fivefold. Now that WAS a wild ride. This year has been more gentle.

But the spreadsheets were starting to tell me a very different story. The line which was screaming at me was the one I had labelled up as 'Food Costs'. 

April 1 - 31 July 2017 - £4000

April 1 - 31 July 2018 - £8000


Something here was making no kind of sense. A 20% swing should have meant a 20% rise in the cost of purchased food. Obviously. Duh. But there was no way the figures in front of me were lying. In four months, we had spent twice as much money on buying food in 2018 than we had in 2017.

Well I had my measurements. Time to manage. Time to get some flesh onto the bones. Time to try and make some sense of it.

It didn't take very long. I started comparing receipts from the summer of 2017 with receipts from the summer of 2018. And it only took a few minutes of doing this before I sat back in my chair, lit up a cigarette and uttered words my mother wouldn't be happy about at all. 

So here's the thing. Every now on the news we get to hear about how inflation is trending. Sometimes it is 2.5%. Sometimes 3%. Never more than that. And these figures lodge in the brain and we kind of buy into them. Things are going up a bit, but not that much. 

My piles of receipts told a very different story. A hidden story. A seriously alarming story which seems to be unfolding a long way below the radar. I guess you won't be so very surprised to hear First Base doesn't shop at Waitrose when we buy in our supplies. No chance. We live at the very bottom of the market in the land of the 'Value' ranges. We fill our boots with 'Loss leaders'. No wonder the supermarkets hate us. We're the customer from Hell. 

Over the years, they have tried to come up will all manner of reasons for not supplying us when we place our online orders for deliveries. It has become a familiar stand off. They say they can't supply us because it leaves them holding less stock for their other customers. We threaten them with the press. You know. How do you think your boss will feel when he sees a front page reading 'Supermarket giant refuses to sell to embattled Foodbank!!' Not a good look, right. A career killer. They always back off. Well, they have so far. God bless the power of the press.

So why do they hate our orders so much? It is because we fill our boots with their 'Loss Leaders'. It goes something like this. I gather the cost price of a tin of beans is about 40p. So if a supermarket sells a tin of beans for 25p, they are making a loss of 15p which of course is pretty lousy business in anyone's book. Well they see it differently. Baked Beans are one of those core products which people know the price of. So if a retailer is selling expensive beans, we punters assume they are expensive for everything else. If on the other hand they knock out cheap beans, we assume they are equally cheap for everything else. So if the retailer loses 15p on a tin of beans but makes £15 on the rest of the trolley, then all is well.

Things obviously don't look so good when the likes of First Base order in £150 worth of stuff and almost all of it is made up of 'Loss Leaders'. They don't like it at all. I bet their computers are set up to make loud Klaxon noises.

Anyway. Things are changing. All of a sudden the old 'Value' ranges are slowly shrinking and disappearing. And I am sure you can guess what is coming next. Oh yeah. Here's what happens next.

July 2017 - 500g of Tesco Value Range Corn Flakes - 31p

July 2018 - 500g of Tesco Own Brand Corn Flakes - 55p

Same product, different box. A cool 77.5% increase.

July 2017 - One packet of Tesco Value Custard - 20p

July 2018 - One packet of Tesco Own Brand Instant Custard - 40p

Same product, different packet. A cool 100% increase.

Now this hasn't happened with every product. But it has happened with most of the stuff we buy in. A similar comparison of the prices on branded, non 'Value' products would probably show a 3% increase along the lines of what the government is telling us.

So. If you CAN measure you should be able to manage.

Food parcels out - Up 10%
Food donations in - down 10%
Cost of bought in food - Up 100%

Now maths has never been one of the big guns in my armoury, but these stats suggest to me that on average, the cost of the items we buy in must have gone up by 80%. 

Think about it. If this is happening to us, then the same thing is happening to everyone else who shops at the bottom end of the market. Take someone trying to eke out a living on £70 a week of State Benefits. This time last year, a week's worth of shopping from the 'Value' range might have cost £10. This year? Probably nearer £18. An increase of 80%. £8. And what does £8 mean to them? 

It means 11.5% of their disposable income. I'll expand this. A working family where both parents are pulling in the average wage has about £44,000 a year after tax coming in. About £850 a week. If they had to swallow a similar price hike to the lad on benefits, it would mean an extra £100 a week. How many could deal with such a hit? Not many.

I wonder how many out there depend on the 'Loss Leaders' in the 'Value' ranges to keep body and soul together? Millions. And each and every one of them is going to have to find a way to deal with these huge price hikes.

Lots won't make it. For many people, these increases will be the straw to break the camel's back. For years the outgoings have been quietly bossing the incomings. Credit cards are all maxed out and family can't help any more. And power bills are also on their way up.

All of this is about to hit the nation's foodbanks like a runaway truck. It is worth pointing out at this point how First Base is different to most foodbanks. We have a set list of items for our food parcels. If we don't receive enough donations, we buy in the extra items. And right now this is costing us an extra £1000 a month. Most foodbanks don't work this way. They simply give out whatever food they receive. This is why there are often queues at the doors of many foodbanks because they work on a 'first come, first served' basis. If you get there late, you go away empty handed.  

Well it isn't rocket science, right? If numbers go up by 10% and donations drop by 10%, then 20% more people will go away empty handed. 

And this is probably only the beginning. The July heatwave hammered the grain crop. Maybe recent rain will have gone some way to rescuing it, but the odds are on expensive wheat this winter. Which means expensive bread and pasta.

The nearer we get to a lunatic Tory Brexit, the more the pound is going to take a hammering. If Sterling goes down another 10%, the cost of imported food will go up by 10%. And 60% of the food we eat is imported.


More and more people are about to feel the pinch. Millions will lack a spare pound to spend on a four pack of baked beans for the collection box for the local foodbank. Hundreds of thousands will be confronted with the sight of empty kitchen cupboards and empty purses. And a first visit to the local food bank. 

The nightmare scenario. More people at the front door. Less people at the back door. It's the outgoings outstripping incomings thing. It always is. And it is the same for foodbanks as it is for everyone else. And when the cupboards are bare.....

Well, the cupboards are bare.

Ever since 2010, Britain's foodbanks have achieved miracles. Millions have been fed when they would otherwise have gone hungry. Governments have taken us for granted. They seem to think we will always be able to meet any kind of demand, no matter what. 

This is a pretty dangerous assumption made by men and women who have never shopped the 'Value' rage in their lives. The quiet food crisis which gathers pace with every passing week threatens to completely overwhelm the nation's foodbanks and I am not sure anyone is paying much attention.

So there it is. August 2018. The canary in the coal mine is starting to find it hard to catch it's breath. In a perfect world, people in power would be making contingency plans right now. If the public are unable to supply foodbanks with enough food to feed everyone who needs it, then at some stage the Government is going to have to step in to help out. 

And if they don't?

Then we all about to live through a bit of a nightmare.

Saturday, August 11, 2018


Carol and I spent a couple of days up at the Edinburgh Festival this week. I guess we have been regulars for twenty something years now. And every year the whole thing grows. More shows. More venues. More everything. This year it seemed the change was even deeper. More profound. 

Is there any other city on earth which could do what Edinburgh does for three weeks every August? Not many. I am lucky enough to have got around a bit in my time and off the top of my head, I can only think of two – St Petersberg and Prague. And all they would manage to do is provide the physical backdrop. Both would have pretty major problems with the whole diversity thing. Edinburgh in August is a flamboyant bonanza of every kind of human being our planet has to offer. Black, white, yellow and red. Straight, gay and all stations in between. I think St Petersberg and Prague would have more than a few issues with that kind of thing! 

More than ever Edinburgh feels like a Nordic capital. The Union Flag on the castle seems out of place, as ugly as graffiti. It is a place comfortable in its own skin. Happy to be different.

We were having a coffee in a Brazilian cafe across the road from Bristo Square. The place was being watched over by a gym fit Slavic guy who ticked the box for more than a few stereotypes. You know. A tight black T-shirt stretched over a gym fit body. A crew cut and quietly alarming eyes. If we had bumped into him in a Lithuanian backstreet I would have been laying eggs and then some. 

His pale eyes latched onto an approaching figure. Black. Rather scholarly. Very African. And then the Slavic face suddenly transformed itself into a beaming grin. The two guys exchanged an elaborate handshake and embraced. Well of course they did. This was Edinburgh, not Stoke.

This is Scotland, not England.

A few hundred miles to the south, Boris Johnson was making his latest pitch for the Tory leadership by comparing Muslim women in the Hijab to 'letterboxes'. The pundits seemed to think it was a decent enough ploy. The road to London power seems to require a healthy dose of racism these days. The experts in the studios seemed to think Boris had found the right pitch of dog whistle to satisfy the septuagenarian Daily Mail readers who choose our leaders. With every passing week, this dreadful aberration seems to be morphing into England's very own twenty first century version of Herman Goering. 

Let's compare and contrast. They both busted a gut to cut a glamourous dash as young men as they emerged from their silver spoon in the mouth upbringings. To be honest, Goering shone a little brighter. Whilst Boris strutted about as President of the Oxford Union and threw his guts up at the Bullingdon Club, Goering cut his teeth as a bona fide war hero in the skies above the Western Front. Then both men hitched themselves to the racist bandwagon in the pursuit of power and glory. Once both men were handed any actual responsibility, both proved themselves to be completely incompetent. Of course, Goering got himself hanged in the end. I guess hope springs eternal. 

So many coaches. And so many Chinese. And for the umpteenth time, it hit me just how much 'Brand Scotland' is continuing to flourish and boom. Once again it hit me just how much the rest of the world is buying what we have to sell. And once again I seethed at the reluctance of the ever-cautious Scottish Government to shout about it from the rooftops. 

And I got to thinking. Can the success of Brand Scotland be measured in more ways than counting coaches at the Edinburgh Festival?

Maybe. I had a go. Here's what I came up with. It goes something like this. I took three areas of Britain whose natural beauty has been deemed to be National Park worthy. The Scottish Highlands, the English Lake District and Snowdonia in Wales. 

Is any of the three a clear winner in terms of postcard potential? Not really. Everyone will no doubt have their preferences. 

Which is the hardest to get to? That is easy. The Highlands.

Next, I picked three 'gateway' towns on the edge of these areas of natural beauty. 

Inverness, Kendal, and Bangor. 

Next, I summoned up and asked what it would cost me to stay for a night in these towns next Friday. 

And the results were pretty conclusive. For a relatively bog standard three star hotel, the average prices for a double room were as follows. 

Inverness - £220

Kendal - £90

Bangor - £80.

Would this have been the case twenty years ago? I very much doubt it. In fact, if my memory serves me right, I reckon Kendal would have been the dearest place to stay by some margin back then. 

So what has changed? Well, I reckon it is clear enough. Twenty years ago most of the guests in these towns would have been British. I guess this is still the case for Kendal in Bangor. Not so Inverness. All of a sudden visitors from all over the world are drawn to the Highlands. 

This isn't simply down to the Lochs and the Glens. Instead, it is all about Brand Scotland. Some put it down to Braveheart and Outlander. I think it is rather more. I wonder how much is down to the 2014 Referendum. We were given a very different view of Indyref to the one served up to the rest of the world. When thousands of flag wearing 'Yes' supporters filled a street, the BBC would give them a grudging ten seconds before gushing on about Jim Murphy using a loud hailer to speak to ten party activists and a couple of hopeful drunks. The rest of the world saw the carnival of Yes in full technicolour and it caught the imagination. Scotland might not have actually signed on the dotted line, but it showed itself to be a completely different place from its backward looking neighbour. It became a beacon. 

If you are a tourist who happens to be black, brown or yellow, you have to think carefully about where you choose to take your holidays. I know, believe me. As a mixed race couple, there are fewer and fewer European destinations where we don't get hard-eyed stares. 

We underestimate just how much notice the rest of the world has taken of what we have become, whether it be the Tartan Army or the Edinburgh Festival. Of course, this is is a bit of a stereotype. But what the hell. If the rest of the world wants to see us as party people who don't do racism, then I for one ain't about to complain about it. And there has to be a reason why we don't have our own Caledonian versions of Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage or Tommy Robinson. Dog whistle racism gets blown away on the wind up here. Surely this is the main reason why a bog standard hotel in Inverness can ask £220 for a double room. 

The rest of the world is sitting up and taking notice of what we have become. Of who we have become. And the rest of the world clearly likes what it sees. The rest of the world is beating a path to our door. The rest of the world wants a piece of our action. Our visitor numbers go up and up whilst tourism is tanking in Trump's America and more and more shops on Oxford St fall vacant.

The day we wake up and see ourselves the way everyone else sees us is the day when the polls will announce 70% support for Yes.

Surely it can only be a matter of time.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018


I've had this thing happen a time or two over the last few years. Not many times. Three or four maybe. I will be talking with someone about Independence and politics generally. And I will say a thing which leaves the other guy all but speechless with shock. You know. Like announcing I am a long term undercover agency for North Korea or owning up to having a life size poster of Donald Trump on my bedroom wall.

So what could cause such a horrified intake of breath? A pretty straight forward statement really.

It's when I tell them the first time I voted after emigrating to Scotland, I voted for the Tories.


 There you have it. Click away now. Unfollow. How could he....?

How could he indeed? How could the Lancashire lad who watched his home turf smashed beyond all repair by Thatcher's wrecking ball have voted for her party? Was it some kind of breakdown? a midlife crisis? A dalliance with mind altering drugs....?

For Christ's sake Mark, just what the hell were you thinking!

Well the answer is simple enough. Of course I didn't vote for the Tory Party. That would be like supporting Man United in a Champions League final. Instead I voted for the man. Their candidate. For Alex. And you know what? I was both a privilege and a pleasure to cast my vote for him.

Let's just say if Carlsberg did politicians, then they would look a lot like Alex.

Time to go back. How far? I guess it must have been 2004. First Base was a two bit little charity and we were hanging on by our fingernails. We certainly didn't have many friends back then. The heroin tornado was raging at maximum intensity and every day saw more and more broken people coming through our doors. It felt like we were fighting on all fronts.

The local community despised us as do gooding incomers who were little better than 'Junkie Lovers'. In the days following an article in the local press where I always tried to tell things from the addict's point of view, I would be met with expressions of pure loathing. When I checked my shopping out at the supermarket, the women on the till would more or less throw my receipt at me. Back then, trying to point out the fact that the vast majority of heroin users were good people who had made a bad choice was much like trying to extoll the virtues of ISIS today.

The local authorities hated us every bit as much as the community. Back then, the NHS treatment services were an utter disgrace. They pretended to offer help when in reality their draconian, pitiless regime was almost Mugabe-like in its casual cruelty. We tried to flag up the appalling way people were being treated and ranks duly closed against us. We were branded as trouble makers. We were starved of funding. People put the phone down on us.

In fact, the only people who seemed to like us were the 1500 heroin users whose lives were being made such an abject misery.

And then one day the phone rang. The voice on the other end of the line said it was the office of Alex Fergusson. Well you can imagine the first thought to flash through my head. You must be bloody kidding. Mordor was on the phone!

Well obviously it wasn't THAT Alex Fergusson. Instead it was our local MSP. And the voice on the other end of the phone said Alex would like to come and see us to ask some questions about the heroin crisis. And I said it would be absolutely fine and we set a time and a date.

This was a major first for us. Nobody much came to see us in those days. Certainly not elected politicians. To be honest, I was astounded. And intrigued.

'Google' time. 'Alex Fergusson'. A South Ayrshire farmer who had been in Holyrood since 1999 when he made it in via the list. In 2003, he managed to win Galloway and Upper Nithsdale by a paper thin majority of 99. Christ, that must have been 'squeaky bum time' in the words of the other Alex.

However one word in the potted biography jumped off the screen at me.


Ah. One of those. And straight away I pictured a vast country pile and guys clad from head to toe in tweed out on the moors dropping grouse from the sky. I reckon I probably have more of a balanced view of old Etonians than most Lancastrians. I had several mates from Eton in my University days. They tended to be lads like Sebastian in Brideshead Revisted. You know. Borderline alcoholics and mad as a bag of frogs, always happy to be cartoon versions of themselves.

But this was different. Eton. Landowner. Tory. Up went my hackles and I resolved there than then to lay an ambush.

I remember it was a baking hot day when Alex came to call with his assistant. We met in the reception area and my first impression was of a guy who was much more of a farmer than an old Etonian. He was dressed casual and when he shook hands it was clear he was used to a whole hell of a lot more manual work than I was. A big bear of a man with a beard and an easy smile.

I told him I had given our meeting a bit of thought. Maybe the best way for him to learn about the hard realities of the heroin crisis would be to get it straight from the horse's mouth. So we had asked a few of our clients along to tell him all about the car crash lives they were living. Six of them. And they were all upstairs waiting.

He never missed a beat. If anything his easy smile widened a notch or two whilst is bag carrier looked like he was about to hyper-ventilate.

Of course we had chosen carefully. Four females and two males. Not one of them backwards at coming forwards. Not one of them known for missing and hitting the wall. Each and every one of them with a whole bunch of stuff to get off their chest. Each and every one of them fired up and ready to give it to 'The Man'.

With both barrels. 

Of course we had read them the riot act and demanded they be polite. They got it and we trusted them to stay the right side of the line. But they were angry. Bloody angry. Rightfully angry.

And straight away Alex was making his way around the table shaking hands. I watched and I was impressed. Our clients tend to be hyper sensitive when it comes to people judging them. It is like the way dogs can always sense fear. Like the way a black person can always sense racism not matter how deep it is buried.

I saw the recognition in their faces. A slight surprise. A huge appreciation. There was not a single ounce of judgement to be found in Alex. 

He took his seat, rolled up his sleeves and got them talking. And boy did they ever talk. The meeting was only supposed to be an hour but it lasted for much longer than that. Our clients talked about it for months afterwards. The big bear of a man who seemed to understand. Who didn't judge. Who obviously cared. Our clients tend to be expert judges when it comes to people. They have to be. Their day to day lives mean swimming with sharks all day, every day.

They liked Alex. They trusted him. Believed in him. Rated him. Were impressed by him. Liked him.

So did I.

In the years following this first encounter, I often went to Alex with tough cases where the State was treating someone badly. And every time he was there for our guys. Sometimes he got a result for them. Sometimes not. But he always left them feeling better than when he found them. 

So yes, when I voted Tory in the 2007 election, I voted for Alex and I was delighted to do so. And I wasn't alone. All across Scotland the SNP took its great step forward. Not in Galloway and Upper Nithsdale. In Galloway and Upper Nithsdale Alex put his majority up from 99 to 3333. His vote share went up by 10%. He completely bucked the national trend. So I wasn't alone. Far from it. Right across his rural constituency the voters put a cross in the box next to his name. It wasn't because his rosette was blue. It was because his heart was in the right place. It was because Alex was everything a politician should be.

I bumped into him often during the frantic weeks leading up to IndyRef in 2014. He was out and about selling the Union and he stayed a country mile clear of the lies of Project Fear. Instead he used plain words to express his own affection for the Union and why he believed in it. Had he been at the helm of 'Better Together', the task of the 'Yes' campaign would have been a great deal harder. Many of the politicians I had come to know through First Base became ridiculously hostile during the campaign. Most stopped speaking to me. Many still refuse to pick up the phone when I call looking for some help for one of our clients. 

Not Alex. He was more than happy about the fact we were on either side of the fence. Me carrying the 'Yes' torch with such enthusiasm was absolutely fine by him. Of course it was. Alex was an old school democrat.

By this time, he had gone on to great things and he had served as Scotland's Presiding Officer with great distinction. Not that you would have noticed. There was neither an air or a grace to be found. He still Alex.

When I heard of his death yesterday a wave of sadness washed over me. One of the good guys has departed the scene. One of the best. 

You'll be sorely missed, Alex. It was a great privilege to have known you.