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.

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.