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.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019


176 years have slipped by since Charles Dickens published 'A Christmas Carol' in 1843. I guess it's fair to say the concept he came up with has stood the test of time. It has aged well.

The great man wrapped the cold realities of poverty in the abundance of Christmas. Back then, it was all about lovingly dressed shop windows showcasing goods only the rich could run to. On that front, things have certainly moved on. The shop windows of the old streets of Dickens tend to lack tinsel. They promise generous 4 to I odds on Wolves beating Brighton by more than two clear goals. They promise 20 gig of data for £13.99 a month. They promise the best price paid in town for gold. They don't often tempt the passer by with a fat goose or a fine array of pies.

Now the Christmas message assails us all through Facebook adverts and endless canned musak in soulless aircraft hangers masquerading as shops and TV ads doomed to be fast forwarded.

And yet the message is the same now as it was in 1843. This is Christmas. This is all the stuff you really should have. The stuff you need. To be a proper family. To hold your head up high. No matter what it costs. No matter how close your credit cards have to sail into the wind.

The have's and the have nots. The few and the many. The 0.1% and the rest. Dickens sent 'A Christmas Carol' out into a world which seems more familiar with each and every passing day. Capitalism in the raw. Buccaneering Britain. Safety nets are for wimps. When Charles penned the final full stop to his book, the average life span for a Manchester cotton worker was about thirty five years. Now there's a thought for Boris and his merry band of brothers. There's an old school solution to the growing social care crisis. Work the plebs into an early death and thereby negate those pesky duty of care issues.

Then as now, far away from the gaudy lights, lay poverty. Grinding. Abject. Utter. 'A Christmas Carol' drew aside the curtain and now it has become habit. We don't worry so much about the poor on November 22 or January 13 or February 3. But Christmas is different. Christmas pricks our collective conscience. Christmas shoves our thoughts to the hidden thousands in barely heated homes. With mould on the walls and nothing in the fridge.

And every Christmas, a new Christmas Carol story for the twenty first century arrives at our front door. First Base. The foodbank. The place where worlds meet if not collide. At our back door, a procession of truly wonderful people pull up their cars to unload food donations by the tonne. And through the front door come those on the wrong end of the new buccaneering Britain. Pale. Bowed. Beaten. Heads down. Voices quiet.

Most of the time the poverty is run of the mill. Nickel and dime. Usual. Familiar. Ends not being met. Incomings overwhelmed by outgoings. Money stopped. Money stolen. Money all gone into the power meter. Money just not there. The same as November and January and February. Alms for the poor.

But as sure as night follows day, there will be a Dickens moment. A 'Christmas Carol' moment. A moment when the sheer misery of the whole thing stops you in your tracks. I mean, bad at any time. Bloodly lousy at any time. But at Christmas.........

The moment usually arrives with a phone call. Like a whisper. Like a gust of breeze on a rain drenched day. The voice at the other end of the line is always the same.

Small. Lost. Achingly embarrassed. Apologising. Yearning not to have to negotiate the sentences.

.... I'm so sorry to bother you....”

....I never thought I would ever have to make a call like this.....”

Then the facts of the matter. One by one. Each worse than the one before. Bad at any time. Bad in November. Bad in January. Bad in February. But at Christmas …....

Christmas just makes it all see so much worse. It shouldn't, but it does. And every year one set of desperate realities arrive through our door and arrange themselves into our 'Christmas Carol' moment.

To stop us in our tracks.

A quiet voice on the other end of the line. Ultra polite. Hanging by a thread. All but overwhelmed by the utter misery of the situation.

A brother in his forties. A brother who had been a successful tradesman for many years. Self employed. Self reliant. Doing OK. Doing fine. Doing well. A success story. Then disaster.

An utter disaster. A massive health crisis culminating in an amputation. And of course there is nothing quiet as Dickensian as an amputation. Now of course losing a limb doesn't mean you can't be a tradesman any more. Of course it doesn't. People who lose limbs climb Everest and marry Liverpudlian pop legends. But it takes time to adjust. To get used to having three instead of four. One instead of two. Learning how to be brave and remarkable and inspiring takes a while. A few months.

Well surely an actual amputation has to be enough to warrant some reasonable State support? Surely. Enough cash to cover the bills and focus on rehab. I mean, even the minions of austerity Britain have to accept an amputation as actually a pretty big deal. Surely?

Sadly not. The small voice on the other end of the line takes me through months of quiet desperation. Minimal benefits. Her hours cut all the eay back to 20 a week. And their mum is ill. Housebound. In need of daily care. And twenty hours a week can only stretch so far. Like a tired elastic band. Until the tired elastic band finally gives up the ghost and snaps. Breaks. Becomes unfit for purpose.

No money left. No space on the credit cards left. Not piggy bank to crack open. No nothing. Just a phone number. Our phone number. The number she never in a million years thought she would ever have to call.

The number she has now dialled up. In the last days before Christmas. In the midst of all those Facebook ads and endless musak.

And one last thing. The brother now has a date in the diary. For his assessment. All those questions carefully crafted to make 'No' the answer. Can you lift your arms above the level of your shoulders? Can you dress yourself? Can you climb the stairs? Can you....

And the appointment is on 27 December. After over six months of waiting. The appointment is on the other side. On the day millions trudge back to work. Beyond the lavish spreads and glittering tinsel.

Too late to help with a bit of shopping. Too late to get the heating back on. Too late to move beyond candlelight. Just too late.

So we make our arrangements. And an hour later the voice from the other end of the phone becomes an actual person in reception. Smartly dressed. Ill at ease. Completely lost in the unfamiliarity of the grinding desperation.

And we provide food enough to take her brother all the way into January. And we provide a print out pointing towards other areas of help.

We do what we can. The lines on her forehead ease slightly. A ghost of a smile flickers briefly.

An then she is gone. Out into the rain. The cold. The harsh reality. And I just stand and stare at the door for a while.

Then I shake it off and get on with the tasks of the day.

So dear reader. There you have it. The edited highlights. The bare bones. The warts and all. Our Christmas Carol moment of 2019. The last of the decade.

If you would like to help us to keep on doing what we do, you can find our online fundraising page via the link below.

Oh. Nearly forgot. Have a great Christmas. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019



This December, The First Base Agency foodbank will issue over 500 hundred emergency food parcels. This is 20% up on the same period last year. Will demand continue to rise as we enter a new decade? It seems like it almost certainly will. The impact of the Welfare Reforms continues to have a catastrophic effect on many individuals and families across the region. As there were no indications of any policy changes in the Conservative manifesto, there is no reason to hope for any improvements.

There are also underlying forces which seem almost certain to drive up demand for emergency food over the coming months. The price of the cheaper supermarket food ranges has gone up steeply over recent months. Last spring, First Base was paying 31p for the cheapest Corn Flakes we could find. Now the same box costs 55p. Almost double. Once again we have seen a 10% increase in the cost of gas and electricity. These price rises hit the poorest the hardest and every passing week sees more and more families find themselves in a position where incomings are no longer able to deal with outgoings. Families have no more money to lend. Credit cards are maxed out. And we become the only show in town.

How far might the rise in demand go in 2020? It is impossible to say.

Thankfully this Christmas our local community has supported us like it has never supported us before. Over the last few weeks we have had nearly £20,000 of support in the form of both food and cash. Front line charities all across the country are finding it harder and harder to stay afloat as many sources of funding are slowly drying up. Without the astounding support of the local community, First Base couldn't possibly do what we do. We have been issuing emergency food parcels for 16 years now. Never once have we been forced to send anyone away empty handed due to having no food to give. Never once. And it will not happen this Christmas thanks to literally hundreds of people taking a moment to think of members of the community who are living through hard times. To each and every one of you who has supported us, thank you. Every one of the 25 collection points where our emergency parcels are available is fully stocked. From Langholm to Castle Douglas. From Kelloholm to Dalbeattie. There is no need for anyone to go hungry this Christmas thanks to fantastic support we have received. So once again, thank you!

If you would like to help us do what we do, you can find our online fundraising page via the link below.

Thursday, December 12, 2019


On a late summer morning just over five years ago, I was sitting in the same chair I am sitting on now. The dawn outside was rather non descript. Mainly cloudy. Occasional shafts of half hearted sunshine. But dry and forecast to stay that way. I hadn't slept much and yet felt no tiredness. Instead I was wired. Hyped. Completely unable to settle.

The date of course was 14 September 2014. Indyref day. And as the clock on my laptop clicked to 7.00 a.m., the enormity of the moment hit me sqaure between the eyes. For the first time in over three hundred years Scotland as all of a sudden entirely sovereign. As 6.69 became 7.00, our future was absolutely in our own hands. For the first time in three long centuries we were genuinely free from London's vice like grasp.

I had done my bit. Tried my best. Surfed the great wave of 'Yes'. And now it was D Day. The moment of truth.

I opted for fresh air and walked the dogs. Someone had planted a Saltire flag. It wasn't in any kind of prominent spot. Just a hedge by the side of a barely used country road. I remember stopping to just look at it as I worked my way through a cigarette.

Would we or wouldn't we?

Well. We didn't of course. At ten o'clock we surrendered our sovereignty and a few hours later all of us on the side of 'Yes' witnessed the Clackmananshire moment.

This morning the dawn is very different. There's no point hunting around for words of my own when Wildfred Owen's words are so right.

'The poignant misery of the dawn.'

Quite. It isn't actually raining yet. But it will be. Loads. Grey December rain served up with a side dish of high winds. Thank goodness. I am hanging on to the image of a pair of elderly bigots gazing out of their rain drenched front window onto a dismal Yorkshire street. They are filled with the spirit of the Blitz, but not quite filled with enough of it to head out into the downpour to cast their votes for that nice Boris who is promising to give them their yearned for Brexit. There's no real need anyway. The Mail has been promising them a bigot fuelled landslide for weeks.

Hopefully this will be a touching scene played out in front rooms all over the country. The blessed baby boomers who never saw so much as a minute of World War Two but are convinced they did because they watched lots of Sunday afternoon films starring John Mills. They are one ones Johnson has hung his hat on. The ones he had dog whistled at. Armchair warriors fuelled by a five year old cold rage after that Pakistani family bought the house four doors down.

So let the skies open and huge curtains of stinging December rain lash the front windows of Halifax and Wakefield and Wrexham and Hull.

Christ. That's what it's come to. Praying for bad weather to keep all the ageing racists in the comfort of their homes.

I am like a reformed smoker on this front. You see, I am a Lancastrian born and bred. Once upon a time I felt proud to come from this grey corner of the planet. I grew up in the shadow of Blackburn's dark satanic mills and I was happy to framed by the Lowry world around me. Then slowly but surely everything changed. Simmering racism seeped into the dark valleys of East Lancashire like a cholera outbreak and my home turf became toxic.

Our little mixed race family made like refugees. We packed our bags and took the M6 north. To sanctuary. And we became New Scots.

I heard a journalist talking last week. His words stopped me in my in my tracks. He, like me, was a Northerner born and bred. Doncaster. The Times had sent him back to his roots to write a piece about how many of South Yorkshire's Labour leavers were about to opt for Johnson. As it happened, his trip back to his youth coincided with the floods. He came across a guy who owned a double glazing business. The guy in question had thrown open the doors of his showroom to help the victims of the floods with food, blankets, sand bags.... all the stuff a flood victim doesn't get from the state. My Times guy was impressed. Moved. Warmed by this outbreak of old school northern instincts. So he asked the window guy about it and reckoned he already knew what the answer to his question would be.

Well lad, this is the bloody north. Tha' should know that well enough. Tha's from Donny thi'sen. It's was what us Northerners do when chips are down. We get mucked in. He help each other out. No point waiting on those Tory twats from London. We'd be waiting for bloody ever....”

That was the answer the Times guy expected. It would have been the answer I would have expected. But it was't the answer he got. Instead the window guy said this.

You know what lad, I reckon this is the Brexit spirit.”

Christ. God help us. A bizarre madness has taken root. I still head up and down the M6 on a regular basis. To see family. To watch Liverpool. And every time I head back home, the 'Welcome to Scotland' sign at Gretna looks better every time. And every time I feel like I am leaving hostile territory for home ground. The North isn't my north any more. It feels completely alien now.

So here I am. Staring out into the grey and praying for a day's worth of Noah class rain. My future is firmly in the hands of a few hundred thousand ageing bigots in small town from Blackpool to Cleethorpes. Behind their net curtains. Reading the Daily Mail over their Cornflakes. Bitter and angry. Hating the sight of the Paki who owns the Spar shop driving around in a new Merc.

Are they about to brave the rain to put some very bad people into power? Maybe. And then what? As someone who has been blogging for many years, it is impossible not to feel a tad twitchy at the idea of Johnson and his shadowy backers calling the shots. There is a new 21st Century thing which happens when the new breed of populist fascists get a hold of the levers of power. The first people to get the three in the morning knock on the door tend to be the bloggers! We have watched this become a familiar story from Hong Kong to the Crimea to Bahrain to Iran.

Carol and I were talking about this last night. To be honest, for me it could actually be quite a good thing. A few months in a decent Scottish jail as a martyr to the cause of 'Yes' would probably help sell a few books! However if the incarceration was more Dachau than Barlinnie, then..... Well. Yeah. I am way too old to have the soles of my given the rubber hose treatment.

Which takes me all the way back to that late summer morning and a lonely flag by the roadside. We didn't have to be here. Right now we could have been looking at events in England with detached bemusement. Right now we could have been thinking 'there but for the grace of God.......'

Instead we are in the hands of all those ageing Northern bigots.

So I hope it rains like it has never rained before.

Sunday, December 8, 2019


We have been giving out emergency food parcels for over fifteen years. We were a foodbank long before foodbanks were even a thing. In fact when we became a foodbank the very word foodbank didn't even exist.

My point? My point is we know a bit about this thing we do.

One thing I have learned is that it is almost impossible to predict how many people will turn up looking for emergency food on a day to day basis. Over the last year, our monthly demand has risen from 400 parcels per month to 500 parcels per month. Am I surprised? Not really. Wages are stuck. Benefits are frozen. Food prices are up. Power costs are up. So it's hardly rocket science. The safety net of the Welfare State is increasingly filled with holes. So of course demand is up. How could it not be?

So if you ask me how many emergency food parcels First Base will give out in January, I will say about five hundred and I won't be very far wrong. But if you ask me how many parcels we will issue tomorrow all I can do is shrug my shoulders. The maths should be easy enough. 500 parcels. Twenty or so working days. So 25 parcels a day, right? Nope. Not even close. It might be sixty or it might be four. It is entirely up in the air.

That said, there are a couple of times of the year when things are easier to call. This is the time of year when people say to us 'you guys must be really busy right now.'

Why? Because Christmas is a couple of weeks away. And we are hard wired into the idea that Christmas is a brutal time for the poor. Which it is of course. Much of this is probably down to Dickens and the whole 'Christmas Carol' thing. Scrooge and Tiny Tim and all that. But that is hardly the full story. If you are either relying on Universal Credit or sick pay to put food on your table, Christmas is by some distance the best time of the year.

Why? Well I can't prove it, but the answer seems clear enough. All of a sudden from about the third week in December, people stop getting sanctioned. Sick people are deemed to be sick. Benefits are paid in full and on time. Why might this be? Well I'm a pretty cynical sort of soul. Maybe the powers that be are scared to death of the papers getting hold of the story of some desperate individual hanging themeselves on Christmas Eve in a house of empty cupboards and no power. Recently sanctioned. Hungry and desperate. Driven to utter despair. A Christmas Carol story for the twenty first century, yeah? The media would lap it up and the studios would be filled with head shaking, hand wringing guests on the verge of tears.

Nor a good look for our gallant Tory rulers, right? So they send the word down to their minions in the Department of Work and Pensions. Ease up lads. Make nice for a while. Pay in full and on time. And lo and behold the two weeks of Christmas are the quietest two weeks of the year for the likes of First Base.

On about 12 January everything goes back to normal. The DWP resumes its cold hearted war on the poor. Sanctions kick back in. Sick people are once again deemed to be fit as fleas. Because when all is said and done, who really cares if someone hangs themselves on 12 January. In a house with empty cupboards and no power.

The second time when demand is predictable has just happened. Sometimes it comes in October. Other times it is November. It is the week when the first frosts of winter arrive. All over Britain, people face a moment of truth. They have had the heating switched off all Spring and all Summer and most of the Autumn. But now there is no choice. It's -2 degrees outside and there is ice on the inside of the windows. Time to use some gas for the first time in months. Time to feed the meter.

Time for a moment of truth. 

Understandably, people figure if they haven't used any gas, then they can't have spent any money on gas. It makes sense, right? Except it doesn't because there's a catch. Small print. A sting in the tail. Whatever. It goes by the name of the 'standing charge'. A sneaky few pence a day which adds up quietly through the bright days of spring and the hot days of summer and the wet days of autumn. It adds up and it adds up. Out of sight and out of mind, until the day comes when it is -2 degrees outside and the moment of truth can no longer be avoided.

So you put £20 on the meter and most of it is eaten up by the standing charge. Which means you are suddenly confronted with a very Britain 2019 question. You've got £20 left. Is it to be heating or eating? Pop quiz. No middle ground. And the cupboards are bare. And it's -2 degrees outside. What's it to be?

Of course most people opt to switch on the heat and come to us to get something into the cupboards. Of course they do. Wouldn't you? I certainly would.

So on the week when the first frosts of the winter arrive, demand for our food parcels jumps. 10%. 20%. Just up.

Except this year it didn't happen. For the first time in over fifteen years, it didn't happen. In fact on the week the temperature dipped all the way down to -5 degrees, demand for our food parcels actually fell. How very strange.

Which begs the question, why? Why this bucking of a fifteen year long trend? Why did it suddenly feel like Christmas?

Well I can't prove it, but I am pretty sure the reason is exactly the same as the reason for our being quiet at Christmas. For the first time in decades we have a winter election. And of course the last thing Boris and his boys would want would be a desperate, dismal tale of a sanctioned benfit claimant hanging themselves in one of their target seats in the 'Red Wall'. In Hartlepool. In Bolsover. In the Don Valley. In a house with bare cupboards. In a house devoid of a trace of heat.

So it looks like the word has been sent to the DWP. Make nice until 12 December. Let the sick be sick. Let the unemployed turn up five minutes late. Allow some slack. Pay up and smile.

And on 13 December you can go back to business as usual. Come down on them like a tonne of bricks. Put a bit of stick about. Let them know their place. On 13 December you can do your thing and you can keep on doing it for five years. Long, endless years.

It would appear they can turn poverty on and off like a tap. Can I prove it? 


Do I think I'm right?

Of course I bloody do. And in a few short weeks we will no doubt be busier than ever before . And in five year's time.....?

Christ. I shudder to think.

If you can spare a quid or two to help us meet the demand which is coming as sure as night follows day, you can find our online fundraising page via the link below. 

Saturday, December 7, 2019



History loves a good turning point moment, especially when the sea change comes down to one man. Or woman. Most of the time, these famed moments are probably little more than the fairytales of folklore. You know. Paul on the road to Damascus. Nero fiddling whilst Rome burned. King Alfred burning the cakes. Robert the Bruce spending quality time with a spider. All good stuff, but all a bit Walt Disney if we are honest.

Then there are other turning points which have a bit more heft about them. Most famous in the history of these islands of ours was the moment Winston Churchill took to the airwaves in a the dark days of 1940 to make his eloquent promise to fight on the beaches. In school we were taught how these epically galvanising words stiffened the spine of the nation and emboldened us to stand alone against Nazi tyranny.

There are one or two minor flaws to this narrative if we are to acknowledge a few inconvenient truths. Post war paperwork showed Hitler had no intention whatsoever of attempting a seaborne invasion of Britain. Obviously he didn't. The Royal Navy absolutely ruled the waves of the English Channel and the Royal Air Force was pretty dominant in the skies above. An attempted invasion would have led to the greatest mass drowning in history. Hitler knew it. His High Command knew it. We knew it.

But, hey. It was still a pretty good speech.

Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial? Mandela's speech to the court before his sentencing? It is hard to argue about these two speeches and the monumental impact both men's perfectly chosen words eventually had on the world.

Which brings me to the tenth anniversary we have reached today. Have you forgotten? Surely not? Well. Let me remind you. Let me paint you a picture of the way the world looked on that cold December morning ten years ago. Here. In the old United Kingdom. When our islands were still more or less as one.

The weather was grey and not particularly cold. Liverpool were eleven points clear at the top of the Premier League. The true horrors of the climate emergency were slowly starting to emerge. And the old UK was a week out from its first winter election in generations.

On that long lost Saturday morning, the outcome of the coming vote seemed pretty much nailed down. The Tories were ten points clear and it seemed that enough of the electorate was ready to hold its collective nose and send a serial liar and shyster into Number 10. And then what? Then we would have been out of the EU in a matter or months and the most right wing government in a hundred years would have set out on dismantling the checks and balances the UK had put togther over a thousand years.

In hindsight, it is truly hard to understand how many of us were willing to vote for the Tory leader, Boris Johnson. In the months following the election many home truths emerged which sent him first out of office and then out of the country altogether. On that grey Saturday morning, the true extent of his venal corruption wasn't common knowledge. Millions of Brits were gearing up to give him the benefit of the doubt. We find it hard to admit it now. Of course we do.

Three years earlier, Donald Trump had managed to win the American Presidency against all expectations. In the desperate agonising which followed this earthquake, most agreed there was only one candidate he could possible have beaten – Hilary Clinton. Clinton was widely despised and vast numbers of Americans wondered how this career politician from a relatively humble background had been able to put together a net worth of $250 million. How indeed? She was sufficiently hated and distrusted for the Donald to slip in through the dack door of the Electoral College system even though he won three million less votes.

On that grey Saturday morning a decade ago, Boris Johnson was about to benefit from a similar set of circumstances. His opponent was Jeremy Corbyn, a rather grey seventy something year old who had won the leadership of his party more or less by accident. Corbyn liked cycling, working in his allotment and taking the side of what he saw to be the little guy and the tabloid press saw as terrorists.

Corbyn enjoyed a bizarre cult following among half a million mainly young, mainly well educated, mainly public sector party members. They saw his as a weird mix of a favourite grandfather and Father Christmas. The problem was that they were in a pretty small minority and the majority of the country couldn't abide the Labour leader. Oh he tried to turn it around. He really did. He smartened up is wardrobe. He promised to keep nuclear weapons. He ditched a lifelong wish to leave the EU.

But nothing washed, no matter how hard he tried. And with five days left before the polls opened, as Labour candidates knocked doors all over the country, they heard the same story over and over and over.

Old school Labour voters from Lands End to John O'Groats couldn't stand Jeremy Corbyn. Just like tens of millions of Americans had been driven by a visceral loathing of Hilary Clinton three years earlier.

Basically, Jeremy Corbyn was beyond toxic. Most Brits despised Boris Johnson. But they despised Corbyn a whole lot more.

When he called a Press Conference on that Saturday afternoon, there was neither excitement nor interest. No doubt it would be yet another promise to spend an eye watering amount of money on something new. And no doubt nobody much would have believed a word of it.


How wrong we all were.

He stepped out in front of the cameras in front of the usual backdrop and made a speech which lasted less than two minutes. He promised no new money. He made no new policy. Instead he stopped the country in its tracks and turned the course of history with a few carefully chosen words.

Good afternoon. Over the last four years I have tried my very best to lead the party I have always loved. I don't pretend to be any kind of Messiah. I am actually a pretty ordinary sort of guy. As you all know, I like working in my allotment and watching Arsenal. To be honest, I don't really recognise the pictures most of the newspapers have painted of me over the last four years. But this doesn't matter of course. What matters is the fact that a majority of my countrymen and women clearly agree with the stories the tabloid press have told about me. And so it is time for me to look the truth in the face, no matter how hard this is to do. Next Thursday there is a strong possibility that this country will fall into the hands of the most corrupt and right wing government we have ever had, and if this happens, it will have largely been down to me. Most people say the only reason they are willing to give their vote to the appalling Boris Johnson is that they find the prospect of me even more appalling. Well, as of this afternoon I am taking this reason away. Today I will step down as Labour leader with immediate effect. I will not be your next Prime Minister. I will return to being a humble back bencher. I cannot tell you who will be the next Labour leader. All I can say is it will not be me. I make this announcement with a heavy heart. Believe it or not, I am doing this for my country. Really. I simply couldn't live which the knowledge that I had been responsible for a monster like Boris Johnson getting his hands on the levers of power. Thank you so much for all your support. A hundred and seven years ago, Captain Oates left his tent in the Antarctic with these famous words “I am just going outside. I may be some time.” Well Captain Oates stepped outside to freeze to death. I will face no such fate. I will tend my vegetables and at weekends I will take my seat at the Emirates Stadium. Thank you.”

And with that, he was gone. No questions answered. No tours of the studios. No tweets or articles in the Sunday papers. One minute he was there, the next minute he was gone.

And the rest of course became history. The Labour vote surged and they became the largest party in a hung Parliament. Two months later Boris Johnson was forced to resign as the truth of his relationship with Jennifer Acuri emerged. In September 2020, the UK voted to remain in the European Union by a majority of 57 to 43 and slowly but surely the country regained a degree of sanity. Of course we lost Scotland and Northern Ireland along the way, but at least we managed to stay pretty much the same place we were before the 2016 madness took a hold.

So where would we have been if Jeremy Corbyn hadn't decided to have his Captain Oates moment? Who knows. Nowhere good, that seems all but certain. We might well have been in a very dark place indeed. Instead were where we are. Not perfect. But not terrible either. It's a pretty ordinary sort of place. Ordinary like the man who fell on his sword for the sake of all of us.

So thank you Jeremy, wherever you might be now. You did the decent thing.

Sunday, November 17, 2019


I find the way people react to me saying the dreaded 'I' word endlessly fascinating. The dreaded 'I' word in question is of course Independence. As in Scottish Independence.

My views on the matter are well known locally as a result of this blog and my efforts during the 2014 campaign. I get the feeling local Unionists studiously avoid the subject in my company. In our neck of the woods, 65% of the people opted to stay in the Union back in 2014 and yet I never seem to meet anyone who is happy to admit to voting for Better Together.

Funny that.

I can only recall one occasion in the last five years when when my uttering the 'I' word caused any kind of upset. It was in Tesco of all places. There is a guy on the checkouts who always asks after the foodbank. How are things going? Are you guys busy? Are you getting enough donated food? His concern is clearly genuine and as often as not he will take a moment to rue the dismal state of the country.

One time he asked me if I could see any possible light at the end of the tunnel. I said yes, I could. The day when Scotland finally frees itself from the dead hand of London rule and gets the chance to act like a decent, modern democracy in the North of Europe. You know. Like our Scandinavian neighbours who don't tend to do child poverty and war on the poor.

For a moment I was worried he was about to have a heart attack. His turned crimson and he actually started to shake. When he found the ability to speak, he told me the day Scotland became Independent would be the day he packed his bags and left.


Wow. I said something along the lines that it would probably be best if we agreed to disagree and he slammed my shopping through in freezing silence.

The next time I spotted him on the checkouts I made a point of choosing his aisle and he was visibly embarrassed by his outburst. We found old familiar ground. He asked how things were going at First Base and I told him we were as busy as ever. And we have stayed on the same safe ground ever since. Like I said, he's a really nice guy and I respect his passion and honesty. It is a rarity.

The 'I' word often comes up when I am doing media appearances. When a new set of figures about poverty and food bank use emerge, calls are made to First Base. Have you seen the statistics released today? Would you be willing to comment?

It is an unexpected part of the job. Adding flesh to the bones. Making dry statistics real life experience. The human angle. The view from the front of the front line.

Over the years I have become accustomed to this stuff. The reporter will set me up and ask a series of questions for five or ten minutes. Initially I thought this suggested a well fleshed out news piece lasting for a similar amount of time.

The reality is inevitably completely different. As a rule of thumb, the whole piece will be a couple of minutes long and only three or four of my sentences will find their way onto the nightly news. So now I ask how long it will be and try to make the three or four sentences count. Reporters are fine with this. They actually quite appreciate it. It makes their work tighter. More punchy.

As often as not, they will ask me what might make things change? Is there anything I can see in the future which would mean less people coming through our door for bags of emergency food?

I tend to smile at this. Well, actually there is, but I doubt you'll be willing to air it. Oh really? Yes, really. I reckon an Independent Scotland will be a place where many less people will find themselves in the desperate place in their lives where they need to come to us.

At this point there are apologetic smiles and sad shaking heads. Actually you're right.... my producer would want that... we have to steer clear....

Unwritten rules. Don't give house room to the 'I' word in any news item covering the realities of grinding, soul shredding poverty. It's just not done.

I had a new twist to this familiar tale last week. This time the local ITV news were in First Base to make a short, 'feel good' piece about our new charity, The Kupata Project and our efforts to raise cash to provide sanitary pads to school girls in Uganda.

I know the reporter well. He's one of the good guys and I was delighted when he called to tell me he wanted to come and do a piece. We ran through the bones of the story and how long it would air for. What are the main points you want to get over, Mark? The difference £3 a year can make to a girl's life. The fact that the Kupata Project has absolutely no overheads which means every last penny we receive goes to buying pads to the girls. The fact we have a rock solid system in place on the ground in Uganda which minimises the risk of corruption taking a bit out of our efforts.

Then there's the Scotland thing. The Scotland thing? Yes. The Scotland thing. Because right now London won't allow us any kind of foreign policy of our own. But everything will change once we become Independent. And when things change, we might well look to the fifty plus countries who have freed themselves from London rule over the last seventy years as natural bedfellows. Allies. A window on a sunny future.....

Cue rueful grin. Sorrowful shake of the head. Resigned shrug of the shoulders. Sorry Mark, no can do... the election, right?... can't go there. Not now.....

So my vision of a newly born Scotland cutting a dash in the world was kept well and truly under wraps. Just like I knew it would be.

The news piece was great by the way. An object lesson on how to say a huge amount in under three minutes. Top drawer journalism if you ask me. It's here, if your interested.

And if you like the idea of what the Kupata Project is doing then you might be of a mind to bung us a quid or two via the link below.

OK. I'll put the begging bowl away! Roll on a couple of days. The rain was hammering down and our leaky roof was making the buckets go tap, tap, tap. I was waiting on a three o'clock appointment. Five kids from Dumfries High School who had chosen First Base as their nominated charity. They asked if it would be OK to call in to find out more about who we are and what we do. Sure. Nae bother.

They arrived like a clutch of drowned rats and made their way up the stairs. They exchanged embarrassed glances at the sight of our leaking roof and the tap, tap, tap sound of fat drops hitting the carefully placed buckets. Welcome to the voluntary sector guys. Welcome to the front line of the war on poverty.

They had questions pre-prepared on their phones and they asked them one by one in shy voices. How many people do we help? What is in one of our food parcels? Do we help many children? Why do so many people need to come to a food bank?

Good questions. Well thought out. Relevant. Pretty on the ball for S3's.

I answered the questions one by one and waited for the one I knew to be on the way.

Is there anything which you think might make things better? Anything which will mean you have to help less people......”

Absolutely. An independent Scotland. A brand spanking new country where elected leaders have absolutely no choice when it comes to loking after the most vulnerable.

And it was like switching a light on. Five beaming faces. And I mean really beaming. They exchanged glances. They made enthusiastic notes. They seemed genuinely chuffed.

Was it because of the surprise at hearing this from an old guy with a Lancashire accent? Was it because I was saying something that was not really allowed? Or was it the fact we were all on the same page. Singing from the same hymn sheet.

I like to think it was option 3. In fact I am pretty sure it was. The world seen through the eyes of the young. This was the way they saw the future for our country. Their country. My country.

They were not just happy to hear the 'I' word. They were chuffed to bits.

And when all is said and done, they are the future. Thank goodness.

Saturday, November 16, 2019


It's four minutes past eight in the morning on a greyer than grey Scottish Saturday. The world outside is a picture of damp cold. Fair enough, there is no frost on the ground. But cold all the same. The kind of seeping cold which makes me want to put off log splitting.

Instead, the time seems right to embark on a blog about bags.

Yeah. You read it right. A blog about bags. Re-usable bags. Strong ones. Available from all good supermarkets along with all kinds of planet saving promises. 'Bags for life'. Bags to save the Great Barrier Reef.

You know the kind of thing.

There's a problem. My bag talk really has nothing to do with saving the planet and carving out a better future for all the generations to come. The fish of the Pacific Ocean will not play any kind of part in the next few hundred words.

Instead my bag talk is all about how strong they are and how they make it easier for someone to cart half a week's worth of emergency food a mile or two across their home town.

Nuts and bolts. 

For the new readers out there, I manage a foodbank which helps of 5000 folk a year across 3400 square miles of Dumfries and Galloway. In Scotland.

For years we used strong, extra large white plastic bags to house our emergency food. Then the Brexit vote happened and the pound lost 20% of its value. The bag manufacturer didn't want to raise its price of 16p. So instead they went down the road of making the plastic 20% thinner. 20% less strong. 20% more crap. Much like the United Kingdom as a whole.

This meant the bags were no longer fit for purpose. Our clients started telling us dismal tales of split bags and tins of beans on wet pavements.

Another image from a country on the slide.

At this point Katriona and the good people at Nationwide rode to our rescue like the seventh cavalry.

We applied for funding enough for each and every one of our 5000 emergency food parcels to be housed in a strong re-usable 'bag for life'. And the good people of Nationwide said 'Yes!' and they sent us a cheque for £1850. Enough for a year's worth.

We choose natty green bags from Morrisons and they were immediately a big hit with our regulars. Strong and anonymous. Two boxes ticked. Punters happy. Job done.

Well. Not quite.

In a perfect world, 90% plus of our clients would have brought the new bags back to us and bought into the whole 'bag for life', save the planet agenda. To be fair, about 40% did exactly that.

But 60% didn't. Which by the way is absolutely fair enough. It's just how it is. When your life hits the bricks, the last thing you tend to think about is the Great Barrier Reef.

Last week Iain shook his head and looked rueful. No bags left. All gone. Time to buy some more. All good things come to an end.

A bit like the whole of the UK.

So. At this point in proceedings I have to assume not nearly enough people are reading this blog about bags. So I guess it's time to try and go all sneaky Russian and to cynically manipulate the Google algorithm. What's needed here is some click bait. Something to start ringing bells out there in the virtual world.

So here goes. The Donald tends to use block capitals when he is looking for attention. And who am I to argue with the wisdom of the Donald....


That should do the trick........... Aye right.

Bags are bags when all is said and done, even when they are 'bags for life'.

I guess this blog is basically targeted at folk living here in Dumfries and Galloway. If any of you have a half forgotten collection of 'bags for life' gathering dust in the cupboard under the stairs, well First Base would dearly like to take them off your hands. You can drop them off at our main base on Buccleuch St or any of our 25 collection points.

All 'bags for life' are welcome, even naught bags who support ISIS or a wicked betrayal of the Brexit dream. Even those bags on the rebound from a frantic fling with Prince Andrew.

Of course, if rooting about in the cupboard under the stairs seems too much like hard work, you can always bung us a donation. £2 is enough for 8 of the super strong paper bags Morrisons are now offering. Just a few weeks ago £2 would have been enough for 10 of the aforesaid bags. But we live in the times of Boris Brexit where the Government's supposed 3% inflation figure is just another of their lies.

The bags used to be 20p each. Then in the blink of an eye, they are now 25p each. As in a 25% increase. So 3% inflation? Really?

So be it. A donation of £2 still puts 8 'bags for life' in the basement, all ready to fill with emergency food and safe from the unwanted attentions of Prince Andrew.

And believe me, they really DO make a difference. Being forced to seek the help of a foodbank is a bad enough thing to have to do. To have to cart the food home in a rubbish bag which is constantly in danger of ripping apart only makes things worse.

Having had a couple of years of providing emergency food in decent, strong bags we really don't want to have to go back to using post Brexit vote rubbish.

So any help you might be able to offer, as ever, will be greatly appreciated.

Here's the link to our online funding page.

And if you are reading this sentence, I really have to say a massive thank you. Hang on a sec. Let me just check the word count.....


And you've made it all the way to right here. You're my hero!

Wednesday, November 13, 2019



So I've got this video. I've had it for a couple of weeks now. I was the cameraman. It is just over six minutes long and it was shot in the very heart of Africa. Under the green hills of Africa.

I sat and idled away the time as it uploaded onto YouTube like a snail making its way from Dumfries to Aberdeen. But it got there in the end. It lost some quality along the way, but not too much. Not enough to really matter.

And now it's there. On a perch in the vastness of the online world. Six minutes among minutes and hours counted in their billions. Inconsequential. Unnoticed. A grain of sand in a desert without end.

For days now, I have racked away at my brain. How to find the right words to steer some watchers to the video? How to attract attention? How to persuade readers to donate six minutes of their life?

It's a twenty first century dilemma. How to flag down a taxi when it is racing down the M8 at a hundred miles an hour?

Right. Enough waffle. I guess I'm avoiding getting to the point because failure means letting too many people down.


In November 2017, Carol and I visited a school in the south west corner of Uganda and we gave the girls a year's worth of sanitary pads. 250 girls. Under the green hills of Africa.

The name of the school is a mouthful. Here goes. Kamuganguzi Janan Luwum Memorial School. We have shortened the mouthful for our own personal use. We now call it 'Our school'.

Anyway. We returned to Scotland and set a new charity. The Kupata Project. And over the last two years we have have made three more deliveries of sanitary pads to the girls. There are more girls now. Lots more. 410. Which offers pretty compelling proof of just what kind of a difference free sanitary ware can make. It what is now called a 'pull factor'. No more missed monthly days. No more infections. Maybe these statistics might just make you proud to live in the first country in the world to provide free sanitary pads to every one of its school girls and female students. The country in question is Scotland by the way; for readers out there in the rest of the world.

When we give the girls their pads we also give them a postcard bearing a simple message.

'To you from the people of Scotland'

Which of course is exactly what it is.

This year the generosity of the people of Scotland enabled us to help 900 girls in 4 schools. We are adding a fifth in a couple of weeks time.

So now you know why we were there. At Kamuagnguzi Janan Luwun Memorial School. At our school. Under the green hills of Africa. Two weeks ago.

To make a movie.

I had made some requests. The movie was for Carol. A song from the black and white TV pictures of the streets of Martin Luther King's 1960's America. Brutal cops. Snarling Alsations. Ripped and bruised flesh. Non-violent defiance. Off the charts courage. An anthem for the ages.

We shall overcome.”

A three worder: Dominic Cummings style. Three words to say it all. Three words to stand the test of time. Three words to change the world.

For the better of course. Still work in progress of course, but at least we now live in a time when people who call other people 'Nigger' get arrested and charged.

So I made my request. Could the girls have a go at giving their take on the old Civil Rights anthem? Could they collect the soundtrack of the defiant Sixties and take it all the way to the green hills of Africa?

Of course they could.

For a while things were in the balance. At the very moment the girls were ready to roll, a raging tropical storm chased down the valley. For an hour or so, the school was half submerged by the kind of rain Noah was worried about. It poured from the tin roofs in a constant stream. The glassless windows were home to hundreds of grinning faces.

But this wasn't Scotland. This was the green hills of Africa. One minute it rains like the world is about to end. The next minute, the sun rips aside the clouds and the ground starts to steam.

Show time. The whole school headed back outside for the performance. Reverend Benon, the headmaster, was the accomplished ring master. The machine was well oiled as an audience of 700 was arranged into place.

Then the hubbub dropped into silence.

Lights. Camera. Action.

Over to you. Here's the link. It requires six and a half minutes of your life. And I hope you feel inspired. Uplifted. Maybe even hopeful. Because the world doesn't always have to be about constant bitter ugliness. Instead it can be...... well. Like this.

So there you go. Thanks for the six and a half minutes. Each and every of the girls hasn't had to miss a single day of school since November 2017. Thanks to the generosity of the people of Scotland. Westminster might not allow us a foreign policy of our own, but they cannot stop us doing this kind of thing.

Well you know what is coming next. Course you do. Can you blame me? I hope you don't. If you do, well, so be it.

Maybe the girls have inspired you. The bare facts are as straight forward as they come. £3 is what is required for a Ugandan school girl to be provided with a year's worth of sanitary pads. From the people of Scotland. From you.

For their families, £3 means three days worth of average wages. About £300 in our money. As in completely out of the question when filling empty bellies is the number one priority. So you can see just how a big a deal £3 can be.

I guess I better do the unconditional guarantee thing. If you give £3 to the Kupata Project, not a single penny will be spent of salaries or fancy offices or all expenses trips to the green hills of Africa. Every last penny will be spent on sanitary pads and nothing else.

Here is the link to our online fundraising page.

There. It's done. Just over a thousand words to be thrown out in the ether to go along with six and a half minutes of video. To sink or swim. To gain a toehold or to be swept away into oblivion. A tiny flicker of a flame to either burn or be snuffed out.

Who knows? I don't. Which is why I have put off choosing these thousand words. I can't think of any more. So it's time to do the wrap up. Throw the words to the spell checker and then cast them out into the vastness with a well trodden sense of trepidation.

To sink or swim.

Thanks for getting this far. I might as well push it? It's what you do in the sharp elbowed online world. Could you maybe share these thousand words and six and a half minutes?

Enough, already! Time to post.