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, October 20, 2018


It's still pretty dark through the window. Dawn is arriving like a an old clanking, coal rain. Shades of lightening grey. Maybe it will turn into one of those Scottish autumn days when it never really gets light at all.


I have been knocking about on this planet for close on fifty eight years and I can't recall a time when things felt quite as dark as they do right now. At home, we are obsessed by Brexit and austerity and the historic ineptitude of the squabbling clowns in the so called 'Mother of all Parliaments'. I guess a Martian looking down on human mayhem Twenty First century style would barely notice our angst. Instead their focus would be the re-emergence of the so called 'Strong Men' after eighty years of us having evolved beyond choosing monsters to rule us. We seem to have entered a new era of puffed up idiotic tyrants and their inevitable death squads.

An era of radioactive poison and bone saws. Brazil, the fifth most populous country in the world, seems set to elect a certifiable fascist maniac by a landslide. Jair Bolsanoro is an amalgam. He has the jumped up preening vanity of Trump and Idi Amin mixed in the cold killer eyes of Pol Pot or Saddam Hussein. On the stump, he boasts of the part he played in the military junta which ruled Brazil via thousands of torture cells until 1985. He makes no excuses for the part he played in torturing tens of thousands of Brazilians. He has but one regret. He screams it from the podium. He regrets his Junta didn't go further. They should have done more than merely torture leftists and homosexuals and trade unionists. They should have killed a whole lot more. At least 30,000 more says Jair Bolsanoro.

And 61% of his recently polled people agree with him.

As the world warms up and the wild weather hits ever harder, most scientists agree on the importance of the vast forests of the Amazon Basin – our lungs. Our CO2 sponge. Bolsanaro has no time for such wishy, washy whining. He is campaigning to chop the Amzon forest to the ground. All of it Right down to the last tree. He wants millions and millions more cattle. He wants to make his country great by selling beef to Texans.

And 61% of Brazilians are carrying him shoulder high.

The ghost words which Sir Edward Grey spoke almost to himself in the late summer of 1914 come to mind.

"The lights are going out all over Europe."

Delete 'Europe.' Insert 'World'. And when the lights go out, it gets dark.

So. Enough. The window shows a lighter grey. It is time to deliver some light.

Regular readers might recall a blog I wrote a few weeks ago to launch a new charity I am involved in – the Kupata Project. You can find the blog here if you are so minded.

The goal of the Kupata Project is as simple as simple gets. We do our best to raise cash here in Scotland and we spend it on buying sanitary pads for schoolgirls in Uganda. Right now schoolgirls in Uganda miss up 25% of their time in school due to a lack of sanitary pads. 

On a visit to Kabale Province last Novemeber, Carol and I bought six months worth of pads for the 250 girls of the Kamuganguzi Janan Luwum Memorial School. We have a pretty good video which tells the story better than words. It's here. Check it out.

So what happened next? Lots of good stuff. Some light in the dark. As the news of free sanitary pads quietly spread through the green hills, eighty new girls joined the school. Absenteeism has fallen to almost nothing. Incidences of infections have fallen to almost nothing.

More time in school will inevitably meen better educational achievements. And when you mix better educational achievements into a vibrant young country of forty million where the average age is a mere sixteen, all kinds of good stuff happens. Only 10% of young Ugandans have a job which pays a salary at the end of the week. The vast majority are basically self employed. Every morning they wake up with empty pockets. To get by, they hustle. They innovate. They improvise. They plug in and out of flowering micro economies by making their mobile phones do things we can only dream of. They are amazing. Inspirational.

They are the future and every sanitary pad is an investment in the future. Not just their future. Ours too. Scotland will be independent soon. It is coming. And when we finally get the chance to lower the Union Flag from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle, we will be needing all of the friends we can get. Of course we will look first to our twenty seven EU neighbours. But then we will look to the long list of countries which were once upon a time coloured pink on the maps of the nineteenth century. Fellow ex colonies. Fellow travellers.

Like Uganda.

Of course the Kupata Project isn't about to provide sanitary pads to every school girl in Uganda. Right now, we have the wherewithal to help out one school for one year. But small acorns, right? Our online fundraising page has so far raised a little over £4000. It's a start. Enough for a ray of light in the thickening darkness.

We make sure the girls know the pads come from the people of Scotland. Fellow travellers. And in time they will grow up and they will remember. And one day we Scots will at last feel grown up enough to cut the London apron strings and assume control of our own destiny. One day we will join Uganda and fifty other countries in the Ex-Colony club.

A shared language and a shared history. Young and old. The bridges we build today can be a big part of our future. If we get it right, we can become the lighthouse in the gathering storm. A beacon. A place where the new fascism is thrown out of court. A wishy, washy pipedream? Maybe. But let's not forget the Enlightenment. Scotland has some pretty impressive previous when it comes to providing light in a dark world. The clue is in the name, right?


They say pictures are worth thousands of words. I guess this isn't the kind of idea a writer of pulp fiction should really be peddling. Maybe. A few days ago our two volunteers in Kabale - Peace and Ambrose – oversaw the delivery of another 6 months worth of sanitary pads to the girls of the Kamuganguzi Janan Luwum Memorial school. Every pad was paid for out of the £4000 you guys gave to our fundraising page.

Peace and Ambrose took a bunch of photos which winged their way through cyber space from the heart of Africa to my phone here in Dumfries. From an ex colony to the last colony. From young to old. From there to here.

And you know what? It's a good look. It brightens up a grey October morning. It is some light

And you know what's coming next. Course you do. The dreaded link. It's right here. And I can give you the same promise as I gave you last time. Every last penny you might be willing to give us will be spent of more of the same.

More of this. More light. And right now we all need all the light we can get.

Thursday, October 18, 2018


For anyone involved in running one of Britain's thousands of food banks the the next few months are seriously daunting. This is a time of year when some kind of budget needs to be worked out. Most of the leaves are off the trees and the dark nights are closing in. The day when things start to get serious is not so very far away. This particular day generally lands in either October or November.

It is the day when winter arrives.

And all over Britain households who have had the gas knocked off for months switch on the heating only to find their meters in arrears. They have mistakenly believed that if all the heaters are left off there will be nothing going on the meter. Not so daft a thought really. What always gets missed is the dreaded daily charge which stealthily adds up through the warm days of summer as unnoticed as a gathering company of Viet Cong fighters.

It means a tenner on the meter only delivers a couple of quid's worth of heat. It means the budget is all blown up. The meter demands more money like a yelling toddler in the supermarket confectionary aisle. So the meter gets fed with the grocery money and all of a sudden the food bank is the only show in town.

It's the day when the reception area is full of people in coats. It's the day when the stacks of food in the basement don't look so impressive any more. It's the day when things change.

This coming winter is as threatening as any we have faced over our fifteen years in the emergency food game. Want a list? OK. I can do that. Try this lot on for size.

1. The price of most of the basic foods at the cheap end of the supermarket shelves is up north of 50%

2. Wages haven't gone up in ten years.

3. Benefits are frozen

4. Power charges are up 20%

5. A whole bunch of families are about to be handed down a £2000 a year pay cut care of Universal Credit.

The value of the pound is probably about to cave by another 10% as the MP's in Westminster scrap and bitch like rats in a sack. How much will this put on food prices? Another 5% probably.

There really is no need for a degree in economics to see where this is all going. A family who has been scratching by for the last few years is about to have to find another £20 a week for groceries, £20 for power whilst at the same time seeing their universal credit chopped by £40. All the credit cards are already maxed out and the bank of mum and dad has done a Lehmans. They've already had the foodbank conversation many times, but the sheer shame of it has kept them from our doors. But now? Will they be able to weather a £80 a week hit to already over stretched finances? I guess we're about to find out.

This is the point when anyone involved in running a Scottish foodbank in the autumn of 2018 is seriously tempted to reach for the nearest bottle. But that's never such a good idea, right?

Instead our only show in town is to look to the community and take every bit of help we can get. Which brings me to the point of this particular blog. Massive problems are seldom solved by massive solutions. Maybe one day some reclusive billionnaire will read one of these blogs and impulsively bung a million quid onto our JustGiving site. I guess it will be the same day Donald and Melania adopt a Mexican baby.

There isn't about to be any huge fix. Instead we will need a whole bunch of small fixes and with a following wind, there will be enough small fixes for us to make it through to next spring in one piece.

And it is amazing how much of a difference people can make when they make their minds up to get something done.

Which brings me to my two role models for this grey October day.

Myra and Katriona.

Myra and Katriona both set their stalls out to do something. And they have shown just what can be done.

Katriona first.

Katriona manages the local branch of Nationwide. A few months ago she talked to her team and they decided to do something to help the local food bank. As in us. They cracked on with some fund raising and then twisted the arms of their head office to top up the money they raised.

£2500. 250 hungry people who will get four days worth of emergency food over the coming months.

But it didn't stop there. When the voting event for who would get a share of the local anti-poverty money was held, they used their lunch hour to come along and vote for us. Did their votes get us over the line? Maybe. The voting was certainly pretty tight. Maybe their votes were the ones which nudged us into the top five and a cheque for £16,000. Maybe.

Then one day I got an e mail from Katriona flagging up a Nationwide funding opportunity. If we wanted to apply for cash for a particular project, then the local branch would back us all the way.

It has to be said our application was about as unglamourous as an application can get. I'll take you through it. Four days of food is actually quite a lot of food. It's pretty heavy. It requires not only a big bag, but also a strong bag. A few years ago we found a company online who provided the right kind of strong white bags for 10p each. And for a while things worked out OK. The bags easily held all the food and the handles were strong enough to bear the load.

Then the Brexit vote happened and the pound crashed by 15%. The bag company had a straight up and down decision to make. Should they put the price up by 15% or reduce the quality by 15% and keep the price the same? They chose option B and for the last couple of years the handles of our bags just keep on ripping. Which is a bloody nuisance.

Most of the people who come to us for emergency food cannot afford the bus. They walk. Sometimes they walk for miles. And walking for miles with a dodgy post-Brexit bag is a complete pain.

We have thought about this for ages. The perfect solution is obvious enough. Splash out 38p on sturdy 'bags for life; and try like mad to persuade clients to bring them back. It looks good on paper but in practice it means spending an extra 28p on thousands of bags per year. £1850. 185 emergency food parcels. Too much money when you're running on fresh air.

Katriona offered us a chance to sort this pesky issue out. We applied and she backed the application and £1850 duly landed in our account.

Which takes us to Myra.

Myra is the Community Champion at Morrisons and like Katriona, she's a complete star.

One of the biggest problems we have had to face over recent years is buying enough of the food we need. We order online and food arrives at the back door. We don't get any kind of discount. We are punters just like everyone else. It would be really nice if things worked like you would expect they would work. When I place an order, I might ask for 99 packs of savoury rice, 99 packs of cup soup and 99 boxes of Corn Flakes. I pay up the full price and wait for the delivery to arrive.

Prettys simple, right?

If only.

When the van pitches up, it will usually bring about 15% of what we have actually ordered. In theory any shortfall is supposed to be made up by equivalent products. Aye right. In theory. The day Tesco replace 85 packs of 25p Value Savoury Rice with 85 packs of 80p Batchelors Savoury Rice is the day Donald and Melania....... yeah? As in never.

Which is where Myra stepped up to the plate. Supermarkets don't like selling the value range. They hate it. And when a food bank tries to buy a van load of the value goods, they really, really hate it. And they do everything they can to avoid it. Myra had aleady been a huge help to us. The collection trolley in Morrisons generates £4000 of donations a year. She asked us if there was anything else she could help us with. And we highlighted the problems we were having buying in the food we needed. Could we maybe place big orders from Morrisons?

This isn't something they do. We had to cobble up a way for making it happen. We now go in and buy £1500 worth of gift vouchers and Myra orders in the food. I get the feeling she had to nag and nag to make it happen, but she got there in the end. I get the feeling she is having to go rather further than the extra mile to cajole head office into large quanties of the value range. But one way or another, the deliveries arrive and we are able to fill the van with all the stuff we have found almost impossible to get elsewhere. I guess I need to give Morrisons some credit and I will. But would Morrisons be helping us out without Myra? I doubt it.

Which brings me to the point where Katriona and Myra come together. Once we had the £1850 Nationwide money in the account, I asked Myra if she would try to twist a few arms to get us a discount on a bulk order of bags for life. It took her weeks of calls and emails but she got there in the end.

10% off. A price of 34p per bag. 5000 decent, sturdy bags with handles which are comfortable to hold and impossibe to break. All the difference in the world to someone who has a three mile walk home carrying four day's worth of emergency food.

Katriona and Myra set out to make a difference. And they have made a difference. It is the only way we will get through the next few months. There is no point in waiting for national governments to come riding to the rescue. Instead every answer will come from within the community. From the bottom up. From lots and lots of people like Katriona and Myra deciding to do something.

And doing it. 

If by any chance Katriona and Myra's efforts have inspired you to give us a small leg up, you can find our fundraising page by following the link below.


Saturday, October 13, 2018


We need to talk about Zachariah. Oh, we really do. Not that he's called Zachariah of course. Who is? Not any more. The Zachariah's have long gone west along with the Mildreds and Getrudes and Ebenedezers. So, fine. He's not really Zachariah. Or Zack. His name has been changed at his own request. Which of course is fine by me.

There is something about his demeanour which prompted me to reach back into Dickensian times to choose a changed name. I can easily picture him as a trodden down clerk putting in fifteen hour shifts at a high desk: smart as paint in the same tweed suit he has worn every day, six days a week since getting the job at the age of fifteen. Thin as a rake. Diffident. Quiet spoken, every sentence speaking of a sharp as a tack brain. Instinctively polite.

In another life, he could have been a small town solicitor with an unimpeachable reputation for fairness. Right. Another life. I guess we'd all like one of those. But we don't get one. All we get are the cards we're dealt. Some of us play our hands for all they're worth. And others? Well, not so much so.

Zack called me up to see if there was anything we could do to help. I took in the basic facts and started to get angry. We meet lots of people who are getting screwed over. Not many who need a food parcel haven't been screwed over in one way or another. But sometimes the screwing over is so off the scale it demands particular attention.

Maybe it is best to kick off with the back story. The opening chapters in Zack's tale of woe. His journey all the way through from bad to worse. At 16, I can picture an impish character. Never in any particular bother, just mischief. Probably the class joker. Pretty good at maths without being deemed a swot. Sports? Not so much.

At sweet sixteen Zack discovered ecstasy. And his mates discovered ecstasy. Big weekends amidst the thumping, brain rattling base. Supplies were needed and Zack was the one with the brains to sort it. I didn't get the particular details, but over the years they have become sadly familiar. A hook up with a dealer from the wrong side of the tracks. Everyone chipping to the weekend kitty. A buy made on everyone's behalf. A narcotic version of getting a round in.

The Misuse of Drugs Act has never been big on the difference between hard core dealing and buying for mates. It all goes under the well worn banner of 'possession with intent to supply'. And so it was that Zack exchanged the banter of the classroom for the cancer seriousness of the Scottish Prison Service.

And then the sky fell in. A warder at the cell door. Come along with us lad. A chair in a soulless room. And news which uprooted him. Destroyed him. Sorry lad, bad news. Your mum has died.

Dazed. Broken. Inconsolable. His cell mate was a dealer from the wrong side of the tracks. Not a buying for mates sort of guy. A sell on the corner sort of guy. He'd just received a consignment and he could see Zack was hanging by the thread. So he did what he considered to be the decent thing. He tried to help. Here you go, mate. Try a bit of this. You'll feel better. You'll feel nothing. A one way ticket to the world of Pink Floyd's comfortable numbness.

And so it was Zack emerged blinking into the light a few months later with a fully fledged habit. After a few years of the usual dismal chaos, he saw the writing on the wall and read it carefully. He got himself onto Methadone. He weaned himself off the smack. He turned things around and left town for Glasgow. Pastures new. People new. A new kind of future.

And for a while things were good. He got himself a good degree and made himself employable. A circle of pals. A life different to small town Dumfries. A long term boyfriend and the heroin left far behind.

And then the sky fell in again. His partner fell ill. His partner died. And Zack was once again destroyed. Everyone was worried about him. All of a sudden the second city of the Empire seemed big and bad. He returned to Dumfries to be closer to his worried family.

A flat. A quieter life. A lonelier life. A life with loss and grief as a centre piece.

And the sky fell in again.

A long forgotten clot in his leg detached itself and headed for his heart. The clot morphed into septicemia and all of a sudden Zack slipped into a four day coma. His blood pressure plummeted and his family were summoned to his bedside and told to expect the worst. Fifty, fifty was probably over optimistic.

Zack beat the odds and re-emerged. After a few weeks in hospital, he was back in the world. His health was so bad the DWP actually deemed him to be ill enough to warrant sick pay. You usually need to be in a pine box for such a thing to happen.

And life went along. Universal credit. A flat in a place with older neighbours who he liked and who liked him. A one room sanctuary of sorts. Not much, but a handful of square feet to once again start out on the process of building a life.

And you've guessed it. Of course, you have. On a wet afternoon last week the sky went and fell in again. He reckons it must have been about noon. Maybe one o clock. He was on the High St. A slight figure with a slightly odd gait care of flat feet.

Two uniformed figures from nowhere. From the past. From a shop doorway. Bored. Counting down the minutes to the end of the shift.

"Excuse me, sir. You appear to be walking erratically. We are going to undertake a search under the Misuse of Drugs Act...."

"Do you have to do it on the High St with everyone watching? Could we go somewhere less public?"

Into an alley. A search which found nothing. His details taken and run through the system. Ah.... Oh dear.

"Are you aware you have an unpaid fine sir? From 2013? From Glasgow?..."

He was. He'd swept it under the carpet. An old problem for another day. And now here it was, snarling in his face like a rabid dog. Time for their hard choice. Pay up now or go to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect £200.

His monthly Universal Credit payment had landed in his account that very same morning. If he used the rent money, he could take Option 1. Pay the £500 and stay a free man.

He could face the idea of jail so he paid up and went straight to his landlord and promised to catch up the rent when his next Universal Credit payment arrived. Sometimes we are lucky enough to find a Good Samaritan when our lives arrive at a crisis point. But Zack had no such luck. The landlord chose to hit him with an eviction notice.

No more sanctuary. No more harbour in the storm. Instead, a date to haunt him. 31 December 2018. New Year's Eve. The last knockings of the year. And then? Then nothing.

And he was confused by it all. Surely being decent and polite should count for something? Well, shouldn't it?

Of course it should. But it doesn't. Not for the likes of Zack. Two bored cops on a slow, wet afternoon was all it took to tip his life back into darkness. And for what? I'm damned if I know. I have tried to get my head around this kind of bullshit for fifteen years and I've never gotten anywhere close.

It seems abject cruelty never goes out of fashion.

If you are minded to help First Base to carry on doing our best to support the likes of Zack, a couple of quid is always welcome. You can follow the link below to our online fundraising page.