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, April 26, 2020


I'm going to wind the clock back twenty five years. A much younger me was heading south down the M6 when things started to unravel. It is fair to say I wasn't exactly in tip top shape back then. I was a heart attack waiting to happen and the odds on me making my fortieth birth day were pretty much slim to none. My life was a caricature. Forty cigarettes and two packs of Rennies a day and every night when I made it back home I would have two treble gins down my neck before I got my coat off. We had a family business back then and my fourteen hours a day were all about ducking and diving my around two million quid's worth of debt. Not a bunch of laughs I can assure you.

All of which made the sudden lancing pain in my chest pretty ominous, though not entirely unexpected. Decision time. I could pull up on the hard shoulder and dail 999. Or I could throw the dice and try to make it home.

I threw the dice and made it home.

An hour or so later I was wired up like Frankenstein's monster in the ICU unit of Blackburn infirmary.

Eventually a laconic consultant pitched up at my bedside and started hitting me with a series of lifestyle questions.

"Do you smoke?"

"Well. Yes and no."

"That's an odd answer."

"I know. Yes, as in I have smoked 40 a day for years. No, as in I gave up three days ago."

This induced a wry smile. "Ahh. I dare say you will have been coughing up all kinds of stuff, right?"

"Totally. I always do when I give up."

"Well. That's the problem."

He then went on to explain the precise nature of my problem. All the gunk I had been coughing up for three days had hitherto provided the walls of my lungs with a protective lining. The sudden lack of gunk had left my lungs exposed and had therefore given a few billion pesky pneumonia virus cells the chance to burrow themselves in.

"So I've got pneumonia?"

"You have."

"And if I hadn't given up smoking I wouldn't have pneumonia?"

This tickled him pink. "Nope. So what are you going to do? You know. With the smoking?"

A no brainer. "Start again of course."

"Thought so. Just have a word with the nurses. They all smoke. They'll show you where to go."

Things were different in NHS back then!

And they did indeed show me where to go and it turned out the ICU unit of Blackburn infirmary was home to several handy nooks and crannies where a patient could sneak a crafty fag.

When the Covid 19 crisis started to escalate a few weeks ago, someone asked me if I was going to have a go at giving up smoking. As a precation. As a sensible thing to do. The idea made me chuckle in much the same way my consultant had chuckled all those years ago.

No thank you. I am more than happy to keep my lungs well and truly coated in protective gunk. And I recounted my very formative experience from way back when.

All of which brings me to a Guardian article I read the other day which put a smile on my face which has barely moved since.

Here are the bones of it. A French doctor took a look at the statistics pertaining to 380 guys who had been admitted to his Paris hospital for treatment for Covid 19.

They had an average age of 65.

4.4% were regular smokers.

Hang on a sec here. 4.4%? That seems kind of low. What is the percentage of French guys of 65 who regularly smoke?

In a nutshell, way way more. 40% of guys in their 40's and 50's. 12% for the over 65's.

But surely this couldn't be right? Smoking damages the lungs, right? We see gruesome pictures of mashed up lungs on our cigarette packets. So surely smokers should be more likely to be admitted to ICU for emergency Covid 19 treatment, not less likely. Surely?

So my man got on the phone to China and asked doctors out there to check their stats.

Bloody hell.

Same story.

12.8% of Chinese Covid patients were smokers. 28% of the Chinese population smoke.

Next up the Doc took a look at the whole of Paris. Ooops.

11,000 patients admitted into the capital's hospitals for Covid 19. 8.5% were smokers.

25.4% of the French population smoke.

Which brings us to the why. They reckon there might well be a couple of reasons. It seems there is something in cigarettes which makes it harder for the Covid to break its way into our cells. It also seems there is something which calms the huge overreaction of our immune systems to the presence of Covid 19 which as often or not is the thing which kills us.

So where next? Well the French are gearing up to issue doctors, nurses and patients with nicotine patches and no doubt they must be praying it is indeed nicotine which is offering such protection. Because if it isn't nicotine, then it is something which requires actual smoking.

What a nightmare for the health gurus who have spent so many years lecturing the likes of me for our craven wickedness.

The last couple of paragraphs of th article really whacked me across the head.

Our cross-sectional study strongly suggests that those who smoke every day are much less likely to develop a symptomatic or severe infection with Sars-CoV-2 compared with the general population,” the Pitié-Salpêtrière report authors wrote.

The effect is significant. It divides the risk by five for ambulatory patients and by four for those admitted to hospital. We rarely see this in medicine,” it added.

We very rarely se this in medicine. Bloody hell!

Wow. Basically smoking every day makes you between 4 and 5 times less likely to become a Covid 19 victim.

All of which brings me to some pretty interesting thoughts.

It looks pretty much nailed on that smoking greatly increases our chances of avoiding death by Covid 19. Amazing but almost certainly true.

When all is said and done, it is entirely legal for anyone who is over 18 to go into a shop and buy themselves a packet of fags.

And it is entirely legal for the shop to sell them.

Which means a life saving product is readily available in the required numbers for each and every one of us. If the French studies stand up what seems pretty much nailed on, then right know we can probably reduce the number of Covid 19 deaths dramatically.

So what will our leaders do about it?

There's the question. Picture Nicola Sturgeon doing her daily Covid 19 thing. I guess it would have to go something like this.

"I am going have to make an announcement today which I really, really don't want to make. But I am the First Minister of Scotland and it my job to save Scottish lives, even though doing so can feel uncomfortable. I won't beat about the bush. Research from China and France shows that people who smoke every day are between four and five times less likely to succumb to Covid 19 than those who don't smoke. Astonishing, but true. Well desperate times require desperate measure and these are indeed truly desperate times. So as your First Minister, I must recommend all of you to smoke at least five cigarettes every day. This of course is harmful in the long term and we all must give up as soon once the current crisis passes. But in the short term, those five cigarettes might very well save your life. I am sure you will understand these are words I never thought I would say. But I promised to treat the people of Scotland as grown ups and as grown ups we all have the legal right to go to a shop and buy cigarettes or tobacco. It is time for each and every one of us to make a grown up decision."

Can you imagine it? I certainly can't. It would be just too much. Something tells me our leaders would rather see hundreds of us die every day rather than admit to the fact that fags are the unexpected magic bullet which can help to save us. If it was milk or sun dried tomatoes or kale which provided the surprise armour they would be queueing up to shout the news from the rooftops. But not fags. Not a chance. 

What an utterly, utterly weird world we live in.

By the way, here is the link to the story of you suspect this blog to be tad far fetched. Have a read and make your own mind up.


A few hours later

I emailed the link to this blog to Ewen, the surgeon who fixed up my ear a few years ago and who is now my proof reader. This is his reply. I think it is fair to say he isn't as enthusiastic about the French research as I am!

Hi Mark
As the saying goes, numbers don't lie, but they don't always tell the whole story. Perhaps the smokers are so short of breath that they don't go out much - self isolation.
Perhaps smoking has already killed off those with a "weaker constitution" so that the remaining 65+ smokers are better able to fight off infections - survival of the fittest. Consider sickle-cell disease; it confers a certain amount of resistance to malaria, which would seem to be a good thing. But then consider the bouts of agonising pains that sicklers get; it turns out that the red blood cells are so damaged that the malaria parasites don't want to infect them. Malaria can be cured, sickle cell disease can't.
So could your Covid/smoking stats be telling a similar story? That smoking is a condition that gives resistance to one single problem (Covid) at the risk of many others,  e.g. COAD, lung (and other) cancers, arterial disease causing loss of limbs, strokes, heart attacks, dementia and all the rest? I think I'll take my chances with CoVid.
Feel free to copy this on your blog if you want to.

Friday, April 24, 2020



Empty towns and empty skies.
Fields suddenly all cracked and dry
After the Winter's endless deluge.
There is even dust now.
Vague restless clouds ushered along by an east wind.
But no tumbleweed.
Not yet.
The quiet can feel brutal
In a silent April.

Ten minute journeys take five.
No queues at the lights.
Always a parking place.
Shuttered windows hide a broken future.
Six feet apart people wait in line with eyes glued to phone screens.
Unpayable bills land on over vaccuumed mats.
A reckoning is coming
But not yet.
The waiting can be brutal
In a silent April.

Herons show off their stillness
Buzzards look down on mankind with contempt.
Mother Nature cares not a jot
If men and women want to lock it all down
Well. That is up to them.
Mother Nature is indifferent
Mother Nature works to a different set of rules.
Because Mother Nature is forever.
Not here today and gone tomorrow.
Like we'll be gone.
Just not yet.
Our smallness can be brutal
In a silent April

Monday, April 13, 2020


Hi Nicola.

We haven't met. In fact, we live in very different universes. I am a foodbank manager in Dumfries who writes novels and blogs. And you? Well, you're the First Minister of Scotland.

Since we are united by a shared dream of an Independent Scotland, I hope you won't mind me writing to you. And yeah, I know you're kind of busy right now so I will break the habit of a lifetime and do my level best to be brief.

Right now, we are both in the middle of the Covid nightmare. My part is trying to keep up with a demand for emergency food parcels which has gone from 120 a week to 500 a week in the blink of an eye. And you have your hands full trying to keep us alive.

Right now, everyone's attention is superglued onto a wearyingly familiar list of questions. Why isn't there enough PPE? Why can't we test like the Germans? When will the lockdown end? How many people died today? How many people are going to die?

Slowly but surely, one more question is going to be asked, and it will be asked a little louder with every passing day.

What next? What on earth will the world look like once this is all over?

What indeed? The only thing we can say with any certainty is that things are about to change. Change utterly, as the man said. Things might change for the better. Or things might change for the worse.

Our track record of coming up with a decent world to live in in the wake of catastrophe isn't exactly great. After the First World War, we prepared the well fertilised soil which produced Musollini, Stalin and Hitler. After the Great Crash of 2008, we climbed into a decade of austerity which eventually pushed us over the cliff and into Brexit.

The aftermath of World War Two offers us all rather more hope. The NHS and Welfare State. 

We are now just a few months away from some pretty stark choices. No doubt Governments all around the world will put their corporate donors first and attempt to drive us all back into business as usual. More cuts, more taxes. Let the poor pick up the tab. All over the world, governments have turned spending money like it's going out of fashion into an artform. And the bill which is about to land on the mat will be eye watering. Terrifying.

Unless another way is found, we all face endless years of desperate, grinding misery. Worse health. Spiralling crime. Stripped down public sevices. A mental health catastrophe. Addictions and riots and over flowing bins. Rats picking their way through potholes.

And all the while, our leaders will tell us the belt tightening is the only show in town. The bills must be paid. The credit rating must be maintained. The show must be kept on the road.

Agghh. Enough already. 

We know the story in advance because we have heard the story a thousand times before.

And when all is said and done, what on earth can Scotland do about any of this? We're just a small country of less than five million souls, miserably locked into a loveless marriage with our abusive partner of three hundred years. Surely we can't ever aspire to be anything more than a bit part player in the vast drama to come?

Well maybe not. Maybe we might take this chance to walk right out to the centre of the world stage to help steer the world towards a better future.

By this point you are no doubt starting to wonder what I've been smoking. 

Fair enough.

Well, here's the thing. Scotland has some previous with this kind of thing. You know. The whole setting the world onto a path to a better place thing. Two hundred and something years ago saw the world locked into a more of less permanant state of darkness. War, famine and plague were the norm. Life was barely worth living.

Then a few smart guys in and around Edinburgh started to see a better way forward. Why not focus on logic and facts and science rather than blind dogma and superstition? Why not indeed? So they turned their minds to a new way of doing politics and science and medicine and the world became a better place. The Scottish Enlightenment, right? Back then we were a small country hitched to the same abusive partner as today. And yet we found a way to change the course of history. 

For the better.

Well maybe we can do the same again.

Or more to the point, maybe you can.

Oh yes, Nicola. 


Here's how. Every day you get to stand in front of the cameras to bring us up to speed on how the Covid-19 nightmare is hitting Scotland. You tend to do your thing a few hours before Downing St, so for a brief moment the airwaves of the rolling news cycle are all yours.

A whole bunch of journalists tune in, hoping there will be something new to talk about. Anything to escape from the constant issues which go around and around in a never ending loop. Where is all the PPE? Where are all the ventilators? How long with the lockdown last? Why can't we test like the Germans?...…….

These exploding levels of journalistic frustration offer you the opportunity to take that decisive step to the very centre of the world stage.

An opportunity to take the future by the throat and to shake it.

It goes something like this and it is kind of like pointing a military grade high wattage torch at the elephant in the room.

"I know all of you are worrying about the future. Will I keep my job? Will I keep my house? Will my business ever recover? Will there be any shops left on the High Street? Will anyone of us ever get the chance to go abroad again? So many questions. So many impossible to answer questions. But one question is bigger than all of the other questions. Much, much bigger.

'Who is going to pay for all of this? Are we all about to be plunged into an age of austerity which makes the last ten years look like a picnic in the park on a sunny day in May?

'Well I would like to suggest an alternative. Not just for Scotland. For everyone. For all eight billion of my fellow citizens of planet earth. Right now, $30 trillion dollars of wealth is parked up in off shore treasure troves. Let me say that number again. 

'$30 trillion. 

'It is a sum too huge for any of us to get our heads around. If this stash of wealth was shared equally among every man, woman and child on the planet, then we would all receive a cheque for $3750 each. The new born baby in South Sudan. The rickshaw driver in Delhi. The baker in Melbourne. The postman in Inverness. Me. You. Everyone. Those who horde the treasure are no more than a few thousand. I think the time has finally come for them to pay their way.

'I believe there must now be historic windfall tax. A 90% windfall tax on all offshore wealth. A windfall tax to bring in $27 trillion dollars: more than enough to cover all the bills of the nightmare we are living through. And before we shed tears for those who will be picking up the Covid tab, then we should remember they will still have $3 trillion dollars to keep them in the style they have become so very accustomed to. And believe me, no matter how many super yachts and Gulfstreams they buy, it will still be utterly impossible for them to spend $3 trillion even if they all live to 500 years old.

'Can we do this? Of course we can. Not Scotland of course. This is a task for the whole world. The UN maybe. Or the G8. Or the G20. If enough us demand it, then governments all over the world will be forced to sign on the dotted line. And then there will be more than enough money for us to build a better future: a brighter future: a pathway out of the darkness and into the light.

'This isn't the first time the people of Scotland have shown the rest of the world a way forward. The last time was two hundred years ago. The Scottish Enlightenment.

Well, maybe this can be the start of a second Scottish Enlightenment."

Just imagine saying these words. Just imagine how the news wires would explode. It's what happens when a politician says the unsayable. But this wouldn't be a Trumpian saying the unsayable. And then? Who knows. Maybe nothing. Or maybe a seed might just be sewn. Talked about. Discussed. Debated. Why shouldn't they pay the bills? Well? Why not...………..?

Politicians all over the world would be asked the same question. "The First Minister of Scotland has called for a 90% Windfall Tax on all offshore wealth. What are your views...."

What will they say? What can they say? The cat will be well and truly out of the bag. 

Out of the bag care of the people of Scotland. A pretty good look if you ask me.

The world finds itself in a dire moment. It is a time when the unthinkable is suddenly desperately needed.

Maybe it is once again time for Scotland to step up to the plate and show the rest of the world a new way forward.

So Nicola, it's over to you. Because there is absolutely no point in someone like me saying any of this. Nobody will notice. It has to be someone like you.

Lights .... Camera .... Action......

Wednesday, April 1, 2020


Postcards. Images on cardboard. Costing how much? It's ages since I bought a postcard. 40P maybe? I guess the shops who sell postcards are all closed amyway. Which makes how much they cost rather academic.

A postcard sends a clear message. This is where I am. This is what it looks like. Not bad, eh?

The views out of my van window over the last couple of weeks have been absolutley postcard ready. The sun has shone and the land has finally dried out. Spring is round the corner and the vast emptiness of South West Scotland is quietly exploding into its springtime beauty.

Just like it has for Christ alone knows how many millions of years.

Except this year the beauty is a different beauty. A strange beauty. A kind of post nuclear beauty of empty streets. Ghost villages. Wrap around silence. Nature everywhere and barely a person to be seen.

As someone who is spending his days out on the road in my shiny hired Ford tranny van from Arnold Clark, I can certainly report the lockdown is being observed by the good folk of Dumfries and Galloway. The world is emptied out. The world is like I have never seen it before.

The world is strange.

And these are the pictures which will stay with me in the years to come. Assuming there are years to come! As a sixty year old guy with forty years worth of chain smoking under my belt, assuming years to come might just be a tad over confident.

As WB Yeats once upon a time said, everything has changed: changed utterly.

A mere three weeks ago I could log onto the Tesco page and order up £500 worth of food which would duly be delivered the next day. A mere three weeks ago a convoy of cars from local churches would land up at our back door on a Monday morning bearing carrier bags of food donations.

Those were the days, right? The days when buying a pack of toilet rolls wasn't a thing to be celebrated on Facebook.

Last week I got hold of a local egg producer on the phone. Could First Base buy 100 dozen eggs a week? I nearly fell off my chair when he said yes, nae bother pal. If I was a punching the air kind of guy, I would have punched the air. A sign of the times. Downright giddy to have secured a weekly supply of eggs.

A day later I got a call from a local business man. A family business with a showroom. He has been supporting us with a monthly standing order for years. Now the business is on lockdown and he is climbing the walls with boredom. Come on Mark, there must be something I can do. I'm a man with a van and an itch to get pitched in.

I gave him an unexpected project to crack on with. Hit the phonelines and find a local potato wholesaler and buy a tonne of spuds on out behalf. Have you got any storage at your place? Yeah, we have storage. Could you pick up the tatties, store them and wheel them into us as and when we need them? Nae bother.

Sixteen hours later he was back. Mission accomplished. Once tonne of Scottish spuds for £280. Collected, bagged and stored. Mission accomplished by a man in search of a mission. And yet again I was assailed by the unfamiliar urge to punch the air.

Things don't tend to get emotional at First Base. Iain and Kevin fill the hours with blacker than black humour learnt from long years in the British Army. Jason looks on with his trademark wry grin. They are guys who are well used to getting things done with minimum fuss. Kevin has morphed into Mr Deliveroo as he dodges around town dropping off parcels.

And let's face it, I'm not exactly a touchy feely guy myself. But sometimes the lump hits the throat no matter how I try to be hard bitten. Like when I picked up a call from Manchester with a frantic voice on the other end. A daughter with elderly parents living in isolation amidst the emptiness of Galloway. No supermarket deliveries available and cupboards starting to empty out. They were frightened at the idea of being forced to venture out, but it looked more and more like they would have to. I told her not to worry. I told her we would deliver later in the day. I told her there was no need to worry any more. I promised her First Base had their backs. We would make sure they were alright. This news propmted an explosion of tears. Tears of relief. Tears of drained out tension. Tears of spring 2020.

I took the food in the midst of a late afternoon of watery sunshine and light breeze. Once upon a time it would have been a perfect day for a nest scratching lapwing. But we don't seem to do lapwings any more. Maybe they sensed the strange world which was coming and exited stage left.

The house took a bit of finding and view was jaw dropping. A figure at the door. How much do we owe? Unwilling to accept nothing was owed. Bewildered by the new empty world. Off the scales grateful. And just a little bit tearful. She promised to call if more food was needed. And I am fairly confident she will.

I drove away down the hill and into the late afternoon emptiness. Empty road. Empty hills. Empty sky.

Covid19 Scotland, where people are as hard to spot as lapwings.

Postcards to be filed away. Postcards of a time of strangeness. Postcards of a time when a puchase of a hundred dozen eggs a week left me feeling like punching the air.

Not that I actually DID punch the air. 


If this rambling jumble of ungrammatical words by any chance leaves you in the mood to support what First Base are trying to do, you can find our online fundraising page via the link below.

Stay safe.