MARK FRANKLAND

The picture? Well the picture says that anything is possible. As in anything. The town is Darwen. And of course the guy is Gandhi. And those around him are unemployed cotton workers. When he heard they were all but starving because of his Indian boycott, he insisted on going to see them. Before he got off the train they were all ready to lynch him. By the time he got back on board he was their guy. Like they say - form is temporary, class is permanent.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

MY IMMIGRANT JOURNEY TO BECOMING SCOTTISH




A couple of things got my attention this week which jointly prompted this blog. One was a big thing and one was a relatively small thing.
The big thing first and it was a thing that went a long way to making my day. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of their independence, the people of Barbados have decided to ditch the Queen and become a republic. Well three cheers to chat. I have never been any kind of Royalist. As a born and bred Lancastrian, I guess I am hard wired in my instinctive dislike of cap doffing. It has never made any kind of sense to me why we should all be in breathless awe of the rather mediocre German family who for some inexplicable reason we have deemed to be royal. What on earth has The Duchy of Saxe Coburg and Gotha got do do with us? And why on earth should we fund these dreary people to the tune of so many millions of pounds a year?
The pragmatic part of me has always accepted the commercial sense behind this particular tax payer’s investment. Sure the Royal Family cost us millions and they are categorically not worth it, but the payback we receive is more than enough to keep on shelling out. Would all the millions of Asian and American tourists still be so keen to come to Britain and take photos of everything and anything without the bait of our high profile German royalty? Probably not. 
So from a pounds, shillings and pence point of view, I fully accept there is a commercial argument to keeping these dreary people in their palaces. But just because rest of the world seems to be in thrall of our royal family doesn’t meant the rest of the world is getting anything right.
Let’s never forget that the rest of the world was also particularly impressed with Maggie Thatcher, Tony Blair and David Beckham.
I rest my case!
So. Hawking the soap opera of our royal family to millions of foreign visitors is tawdry but lucrative. Accepted.
But it is a completely different story for the people of Barbados. I have a personal connection to this one. My wonderful mother in law, Judie, is 100% Barbadian. My partner Carol is 50% Barbadian and my two lads are 25% Barbadian. Dyonne and Courtney represent the generation at the end of an extra-ordinary immigrant journey that spans several centuries. A few hundred years ago a relative of theirs was yanked from their home by Arab slavers and marched in chains to the West African coast and sold to the Brits. The Brits locked them down in the hold of a slave ship took them through the hell of the Middle Passage to the sunshine island of Barbados. Against all odds, the relative with no remembered name managed to survive the ordeal for long enough to meet a partner and have children.
Successive generations survived the torture of slavery until eventually one became free. In the late 50’s Judy extended the immigrant journey of the family by accepting our invitation to come to Britain to help with our NHS as a ward sister. Carol was born with Caribbean blood and a British passport. Dyonne and Courtney had their Caribbean blood blended with Lancastrian blood and in 1996 the next chapter of the long immigrant journey saw us all trekking north to Scotland.
This all means I feel a strong connection to the island of Barbados and explains my delight at their decision to dump the Royal Family. They have no tourist payback for having the Queen’s head on their stamps and coins. They don’t need the Queen to encourage the tourist trade. They have beaches, palm trees, rum and reggae to do that, As much as we would like to pretend otherwise, their island in the sun was the scene of one of history’s greatest ever crimes against humanity. I have never felt so ashamed to be British as I was when I discovered that the life expectancy of an African slave being sold in a seventeenth century Barbadian slave market was SHORTER than a Jew getting off the train at Auschwitz Birkenau in 1943.
Three months.
It makes the survival of the heroic ancestor of my two sons all the more remarkable. When that kind of obscenity has been committed on your soil, why on earth would you want the head of the Queen of the people who did the deed on your stamps and coins? Well the people of Barbados have chosen to cut the cord and bloody good on them.
The second thing was a smaller thing. My constant insomnia meant that I was up and about at a ridiculously unholy hour a couple of mornings last week. To fill the dark empty hours, I used Sky Go to piggy back onto my dad’s Sky Sports account and watched the two semi finals of the cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
The cricket itself was relatively unremarkable. What go my attention was the crowds in Wellington and Sydney. Kiwi supporters wore the same black as the All Blacks whilst the Aussies were clad in yellow. Fair enough. What was fascinating was the range of skin colours of those wearing the shirts. They were black, white, brown and yellow but each and every one of them was cheering every run or wicket with a shared passion and enthusiasm. Each and every one had completed their individual immigrant journeys and now they were roaring on the cricketers of their adopted home. In fact, the ones with the black, brown and yellow skin were the ones who were cheering the loudest.
My own two sons wear England football shirts when the football World Cup comes around. But when it came to the big vote on September 18th, they both voted enthusiastically for an Independent Scotland.
They wanted to see their adopted home get the chance to row its own boat.
Both things got me to thinking about my own immigrant journey which is mundane in the extreme when compared to the epic saga of Dyonne and Courtney's ancestors. To the best of my knowledge, my ancestors have kicked around Lancashire and Yorkshire for the last few hundred years. Before that, I guess some bearded type from Scandinavia must have hopped across the North Sea in a long boat to help themselves a spot of rape and pillage.
My own immigrant journey started in 1996 when I headed north to live in Scotland. But it didn’t feel that way to be honest. Dumfries is a mere 125 miles and two hours of motorway from my Lancastrian roots. I never felt like an immigrant. I was merely a Lancastrian living in a different part of Britain: A born and bred Northerner who had chosen to head a little further north.
Did I feel like some kind of Englishman abroad? Not really. To be honest I have never felt particularly English nor British. In my younger days back packing the countries of Asia and Africa, I always masqueraded as a Scot or Australian. To admit to being either English or British guaranteed a frosty reception. Pretending to be Scottish prompted an entirely different reception.
Think about it. Scotland fans travel to the World Cup and it is one long party – everyone is glad to see them and the bars are open 24/7. England fans travel to the World Cup and everyone wishes they hadn’t qualified at all – all the bars are locked tight and the riot police are out in force.
At the Wembley cup finals of the 70’s and 80’s when King Kenny Dalglish maxed out his medal collection, all of the Liverpool fans on the terraces would drown out the National Anthem with booing. Why? I guess we didn’t want to be seen as British. We were Scousers. Northerners. Not Brits. Not English. Saving the Queen was something we wanted no part of.
Then a year ago everything changed. 
I had written a blog explaining why I would be voting ‘Yes’ for an independent Scotland and a surprising number of people had read it. It didn’t seem like any kind of a big deal. Here is the link in case you are interested


Then Stuart Carroll got in touch via Twitter and asked if I would like to go along to give a speech to a ‘Yes’ meeting in Lockerbie.
I said sure. I’ll give it a go.
I was nervous as hell. Never in a million years had I ever imagined I would stand up to give any kind of a political speech. There were about 50 people in the Town Hall and when I sat down the applause seemed genuine enough. I was just happy not to have crashed and burned. The speeches were filmed that night which seemed a little strange, but not particularly. Here is mine if you are interested.


When the meeting was done, I drove home and chalked the night up to unexpected experience. It had the feel of a one off.
How wrong I was.
What happened next took me completely by surprise. To my enduring astonishment, the video of my speech was watched over 5000 times and for the next six months I became a part of the magnificent ‘Yes’ campaign. I spoke at a whole bunch of ‘Yes’ meetings. I got to experience the visceral nastiness of professional politicians in a series of debates. At times it got thoroughly nasty, most notably on a particularly ugly debate on BBC radio, but overall those six months were some of the most extraordinary of my life.
Oh, and I wrote a serialised book called 'Toxic' which I released online chapter by chapter all the way to our date with destiny on September 18th. Here it is by the way. £1.99’s worth of nostalgia for anyone wanting to time travel back to those heady days of the summer of 2014.


In the end we lost of course. And September 19th was without a shadow of a doubt one of the very worst days of my life. But without my really noticing, something had changed inside me. My immigrant’s journey had accelerated. In fact my immigrant’s journey was complete. For a few days I received gloating messages from English friends and acquaintances and complete strangers who had followed my Indy journey via my blogs.
Suddenly these taunting voices were clearly coming from a land that was now foreign to me. In November when Scotland played England at Parkhead, it came as no surprise when I found myself rooting for the men in blue shirts. And now when anyone asks me about my nationality and I say I am Scottish, I am no longer using a flag of convenience.
I am Scottish. 
To the toenails. How bizarre. How completely extraordinary. But as all those brown, black and yellow faces cheering on Australia and New Zealand proved last week, enthusiastic immigrants always tend to make the most fervent patriots. American has found a way to more or less rule the planet on the back of its ability to make anyone from anywhere feel a part of the Stars and Stripes.
My Scottishness has nothing to do with postcards of Loch Lomond and bagpipes and tossing the caber. My Scottishness is born out of the fact that this is a place where UKIP will lose lots of deposits.
It is a place where my black partner and two brown sons are made to feel welcome.
It is place where the community of a town of 50,000 have donated £38,000 worth of food in the last 12 months to feed the victims of the Welfare Reforms.
Scotland is what Britain is supposed to be.
Scotland is what Britain pretends to be.
Instead of Golden Dawn and UKIP and The Front National, we have the Scottish National Party.
Anyone looking for prejudice and racism should look elsewhere.
And you know what, telling people I am Scottish feels pretty good. It sits well with me and it sits well with the rest of the world. And this time the rest of the world has it right!
Has my own immigrant’s journey arrived at the final destination? I hope so. It feels that way. All being well, in the next few years the journey will be formalised when we all see sense next time and say goodbye to London rule for ever and ever. 
Amen! 
And then maybe we will take a leaf out of the Barbados book and get rid of that dreary immigrant family from the Duchy of Saxe Coburg and Gotha as well.     

Friday, March 27, 2015

ON THE ROAD FROM NEW MEDIA TO OLD MEDIA


Many hundreds of readers found their way to my blog about the imminent arrival of the Trussell Trust in Dumfries and how hack off we are about it. To be honest, the response to the blog has been extremely encouraging to everyone here at First Base. I was therefore particularly pleased when the phone rang the other day. It was Sharon, a reporter on our local paper - 'The Dumfries Standard'. Sharon had read the blog and felt the way all of our many volunteers were feeling about the arrival of the new kid on the foodbank block deserved wider attention.
Did I agree?
You bet I agreed.
The result appeared in the paper today and can be seen above. Once upon a time this kind of shoddy behaviour could easily have been played out behind closed doors. Not any more.
It's always nice when the traditional media agrees.
Thanks Sharon!

Monday, March 23, 2015

THE WORLD CAN BE A BRUTAL PLACE WHEN THE COMPUTER SAYS 'NO'.





There are never any clues as to what lies in store when I unlock First Base and kick off another day. I guess it’s how it is for any front line charity. A front line can be eerily quiet or a place of thunderous mayhem.
There are routines.
Lights on. Kettle on. Laptop out of bag and onto table.
Black coffee: strong.
Open the mail.
Curse the typed brown envelopes from virtual firms of solicitors chasing debt.
Smile at the hand written white envelopes with cheques and kind words.
A well worn list of first things to do. Before the door is opened onto the world. Before the tales of misery come a calling.
Dia1 1571.
A bland voice to tell me what I already know. A honeyed voice tailor made to advertise washing up liquid welcomes me to my message line and soothingly informs me that messages are indeed waiting to be heard.
So I choose option 1. And option 1 tells me that the message I am about to listen to arrived a little after five o clock on the day before. The phone must have rung out for a while in our empty building before the caller would have heard my Lancastrian tones telling them what they had no doubt already guessed.
Nobody home.
Doors closed.
Day done.
Maybe it explained the immediate edge of despair. A voice which spoke of yet another kick in the teeth on a day where nothing had gone well.
Age?
Not young. The careful manners suggested a date of birth way back in the 1930’s.
And every word spoke of a call that was hated. Detested.
A terrible sense of completely unnecessary shame.
But of course those of the generation who were there when the Spitfires took to the clear blue skies of June to stop the Nazis in their Panzer tracks hate to ask for help. For charity.
For a lifeline.
Next came an address from the other side of town.
And then the phone number. Except there wasn’t a phone number. Not yet. A shaking emotion took a hold and the tired voice couldn’t keep it going.
“I’m so sorry. I am rather upset. Really upset. I don’t know what I’m going to do you see. I’m 83 and the Council have had a problem and they haven’t paid my council tax…. And my wife has been really ill and she is only just home from hospital…Sorry… it’s ridiculous but I can’t remember my own number. I’m just so upset. Just wait please. I have to know it…”
And then he suddenly seemed able to recall the eleven numbers in question. Hesitantly at first, but then with a growing certainty. I copied them down on the back of one of the brown envelopes from a virtual firm of solicitors.
And then the call was ended with heartfelt apologies for being a nuisance. And a sentence that has become so gut churningly familiar over these last few bleak years.
“I never thought I would be in a situation like this. Never. I really am very sorry.”
So I picked up the phone and dialed up the number.
A computer voice informed me that the number I had dialed didn’t exist.
Was it me or was it him? I half expected it was me. That after all was why I had chosen option 2 to save the message instead of option 3 to delete the message. Because when you take down a number wrong and delete the message you feel like a complete fool. Especially when the message carries the despair of an 83 year old guy who never, ever in a million years believed he would have to make a call to a place like ours.
To ask for help.
For charity.
For a lifeline.
I listened again. And I wrote down the number again. And it turned out I had written it down right first time around. So I dialed again because there was a chance that I had dialed wrong the first time.
But I hadn’t.
The same digital voice with the same words.
So he hadn’t made it after all. In the midst of his anxiety, the eleven numbers had been the wrong eleven numbers. A completely random eleven numbers. Eleven numbers which took me down a cul de sac to one of those half built housing projects in Ireland which died on their feet when the banks ran dry of cash.
But at least I had an address. Surely the address was more reliable because there were only three numbers associated with the address along with the name of a street.
So I collected enough food to feed two people for a week and took some advice from Google maps on how to make my way across town.
Ten minutes later I rang the bell and straight away I heard movement inside. And the moment the door opened I knew I was at the right place. An ashen pale face with watery frightened eyes set way, way back. The wrinkled sacks under the exhausted eyes were bigger than the exhausted eyes themselves. The body was little more than bagged up bones wrapped in long familiar clothes. Slippers with holes. A walking stick that was clearly not for show.
A third leg.
Thankfully the sight of me didn’t seem to be the cause of any alarm. I told him who I was and the clouds cleared. He apologised and I told him there was no need. He told me that he had realised straight away that the eleven numbers he had given me were the wrong eleven numbers. And he apologised for not ringing back. And I said it wasn't any kind of a problem.
And all of a sudden everything came out in a rush of words.
A torrent.
A waterfall.
They had told him that it hadn’t look like his wife would make it. Bowel cancer. Well they thought it was bowel cancer. They were pretty well certain. And the only hope was an operation. But they had carefully prepared him for the worst. Because the growth in her stomach had taken her all the way down to 5 stone. And she was so weak….
But when his phone had rung a little after midnight, the news had been unexpectedly good. They had removed a huge polyp. But it was a benign polyp. Not a cancerous polyp. And she had made it. And she made it home. And now she was back to six stone and rising.
Now it was his turn. The circulation to his left leg had dried up line a desert stream in Chad. They had tried different things, but now there was nothing left to try. So the leg was ear marked for amputation. It was merely a question of when. So the walking stick was indeed a third leg because the second leg was no longer fit for purpose.
The second leg was unviable.
A rusting winch over a long closed coal mine.
And then all of a sudden he realised just how many words he had poured out to the complete stranger on the doorstep.
And again he apologised. And again I told him there was no need.
He closed his eyes for a moment a took a careful breath into his exhausted lungs. He picked his words more carefully. He organised his thoughts.
The Council had experienced some sort of computer problem. The housing benefit payment had failed to arrive in hundreds of bank accounts.
Including his bank account.
And it was a disaster. Because he had everything set up for a list of direct debit payments to leave his account on the day after the housing benefit money landed in the account.
Because he couldn’t stand the idea of being in debt. He had never been in debt.
But now he was in debt because the Council had experienced a computer problem which meant that the life blood of his bank account had failed to arrive. Just like the lifeblood no longer made its way around the veins and arteries of his left leg.
But all his direct debits had still all gone out.
And now he was overdrawn and he had no means to buy food. Because he would only ever buy food once every bill had been settled on the agreed date and to the agreed amount.
All the bills were settled which meant there was nothing left.
Worse.
His account had plunged into an un-agreed overdraft and the customer service voice of his bank had broken the bleak news that he would be fined £50 for his unexpected journey into the red.
This £50 wreaked havoc with every one of his carefully calculated budgets. Once everything was paid in full, he and his wife had £60 a week for food and other day to day expenses. There were no savings. No back stop. So an unplanned £50 hit would take weeks and weeks to overcome. And in the mean time they had nothing to eat and the hospital had carefully explained how vital it was for his wife to eat. regularly and well. But all he had were red numbers in the bank and a million cubic metres of fresh air.
He had spent an hour on the phone that morning with the voice from the Council that was the gateway to the Scottish Welfare Fund. He had been means tested to within an inch of his life and at the end of the call he was told that the Council computer had decided to award the sum of £29 which would be electronically transferred in due course.
So there it was. Two citizens born way back in the days of Stanley Baldwin. A wife home from a life and death operation that ran all the way to midnight. A husband with a left leg on borrowed time. A kitchen full of empty cupboards. A mistake made by a Council computer. A carefully crafted budget blown out of the water. A £50 penalty automatically levied by a Cray computer fighting out of Canary Wharf.
A crisis measured and assessed to the tune of £29.
But there were no complaints from my man. For the £29 took away two thirds of the nightmare caused by the £50 penalty.
His crisis was down to £21.
Manageable.
And when I told him I had a bunch of food in the boot of my car, his face was all about conflicting emotions. Eight decades of honest pride made the charity unbearably hard to accept. Empty cupboards and a six stone wife made it a necessity.
Would I mind carrying the bags in?
Of course not.
I carried the bags in.
And I encouraged him to call us if things didn’t sort out out by the time the cupboards were empty again.
He said he would.
We shook hands and I left.
Maybe the Council have managed to make the payment now.
And maybe someone in the bank has found the required humanity to get rid of the £50 penalty.
Maybe.
But the world can be a brutal place when the computer says no.  

Monday, March 16, 2015

THE UGLY SIDE OF THE FOODBANK GAME



Maybe this blog is a nuts and bolts view of how the twenty first century Voluntary Sector goes about running its railroad. Or maybe it’s just me getting a few things off my chest on a grey Monday morning in March. Regular readers will be well aware that I tend to be a pretty staunch defender of the Voluntary Sector and what it achieves. I am well and truly biased of course having been a charity manager for the last twelve years. But I am also very sure of my ground. God alone knows what would have happened over the last few years if charities had not been there to feed, heat and clothe all of the millions who have been ground into the floor by the Welfare Reforms. The inescapable truth is that people with no money cannot buy anything to eat, and if people don’t eat anything, well, they basically starve. Our government has made the choice to deprive millions of our fellow citizens of every penny of their income and thereby leave them vulnerable to extreme hunger. The Voluntary Sector has stepped up to the plate and taken on the role of being the food cupboard of last resort. If the Voluntary Sector hadn’t have been there to put food on the table, would the Government have been willing to sit back and see people starve to death in Britain 2015? I like to think they wouldn’t, but who knows?
Over the last few years of austerity driven hunger, the efforts of charities up and down the land to feed those who have no means to eat has been Herculean. The Voluntary Sector has won plenty of Brownie points and by and large it has deserved every single one of them.
But that doesn’t means that the Voluntary Sector is remotely perfect.
It ain’t.
Over the last thirty years or so we have seen hundreds of thousands of much loved family run shops driven out of businesses by brutally dominant supermarkets. We haven’t liked it, but it has been presented as a fact of life. The savage reality of Darwinian capitalism. Familiar ground.
Much less familiar has been the rise of charities who mimic the way the great corporations go about their business. Most of the familiar brand names of ‘Big Charity’ now bear more than a passing resemblance to the companies of the Footsie 100. They work out of expensive offices with prime London postcodes and their Chief Executives earn six figure salaries and command the kind of pension packages that bankers aspire to.
These super-charities spend big bucks on advertising to put their brands in the eye line of the public and they send reps door to door to sweet talk punters into monthly direct debits.
How has this happened? Well when you live in a capitalist system, all aspects of life tend to gravitate towards the hard law of the jungle. In a nutshell, every man and his dog chases the money. The last Government made all kinds of promises about easing poverty and making life better for those at the bottom of the ladder. Basically they decided to borrow a whole load of money and throw it about the place. Tens of millions of pounds worth of this money was ear marked for the Voluntary Sector and for a decade it became a Klondike. A major market was made out of basic misery. Charities had little interest in counting out 10p pieces from a collection pot on the counter of the local garage when they could bid for six figure contracts from the Council.
Big Charity soon decided that all of these lovely millions of public cash should be for it and it alone. And so they hired lobbyists to hang out in the House of Commons tea room to whisper in the ears of MP’s. Don’t make any cash available to all of those little charities. They are too amateurish to be trusted with the public purse millions. Oh no. The money needs to go to the professionals with London head offices and HR departments and adverts on the tele and Chief Execs on £150,000 a year.
And so the bar kept on getting raised. To successfully bid for any of the Government gold, you needed teams of lawyers and trained form-fillers. The application forms could be 100 pages long and written in the kind bizarre Government speak jargon that only super geeks could translate. You needed kite marks and a policy for everything and people to spend their days putting in time on all the various local quangos.
And for while it seemed like Big Charity would succeed in getting rid of all the pesky little charities much like the supermarkets saw off all the corner shops.
But then Lehmann Brothers crashed and the money train was put up on bricks. The days of the great public purse contracts were well and truly over. A lonely, moaning wind blew sage bushes down the suddenly deserted streets of the New Labour Klondike. The misery market crashed along with the sub prime mortgage market.
An the rat race stepped up a notch.
The gravy train had created thousands of well paid managerial jobs and the managers in question had no wish to lose their jobs. Who can blame them. Nobody fancies the scrapheap much. We’ve all got mortgages to pay and families to feed. So the message was loud and clear. Raise some cash quick or head for the Job Centre.
Basically this means that increasingly frantic charities will home in on any pot of gold they can find. Outfits which have always worked in the field of mental health all of a sudden want to set something up for stray cats. Well. Not quite that, but you get the drift.
It has all got rather unedifying. Rather ugly. But a scramble for cash is seldom pretty.
We are starting to get a taste of it here at First Base. For 12 years we have been handing out food parcels to people with nothing to eat and for nine of those years nobody took the slightest bit of notice. It certainly wasn’t a remotely hip kind of thing to be doing. When I spoke about the work of First Base to community groups, most people shook their heads at the idea of people not having anything to eat. I don’t think many believed it could be true.
Why did we start handing out emergency food parcels way back in 2003? Simple. Nobody else was doing it. There was a need and nobody was meeting it. There was no money in it either. We had to beg, borrow and steal to get the thing off the ground. 
One thing was for certain – nobody was remotely interested in getting involved in the feeding the hungry thing. It was deemed to be loser’s alley. No money in it.
But of course all of that has changed in a big way over recent years. Foodbanks have made their way out of the shadows and into the limelight and all of a sudden Big Charity is itching to climb on board. Because when something is on the tele and in the papers all the time, there’s got to be a few bucks to be had, right?
Which brings me to emergency food in the small market town of Dumfries. Once again I am well and truly biased here and I make no apologies for being so. In my humble opinion, Dumfries has to be the best place in the land to get something to eat if you are on your uppers.
Here’s why.
Every agency in town is familiar with the procedure of how to send a hungry person along to First Base to receive half a week’s worth of food. For years they have been able to send along their clients with complete and absolute confidence that the food will be there. First Base has never once run out of food. Never once has a person turned up at our counter and been turned away due to the fact that our shelves are empty. Once they get here, we give them a sheet of paper which tells them about all the places in town where they can get a free hot meal. Seven days a week. 365 days a year.
Between us, the charities of Dumfries have set up a genuine Rolls Royce of a system which runs superbly.
Nobody goes hungry. Nobody gets turned away. Nobody is judged.
In the last twelve months we have provided emergency food for 5000 people – which represents 10% of the population of the town. During that period I am pretty certain that a similar number of hot meals will have been served. This would be the equivalent of 1.6 million people a year being fed in London. I am pretty sure there will not have been that many.
More to the point, all of the charities involved in this effort are more than capable of doubling our capacity should it be required. We all have a list of people who are keen to volunteer their services and every month sees the local community donating more food.
I don’t believe there can be too many places in the UK where the provision of emergency food is so comprehensive and reliable.
So surely there is no need for any more food banks, right? Why would there be? After all, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. And all that.
But of course this kind of logic has nothing to do with anything. Because foodbanks are where it’s at right now and there are pots of gold to be had.
And so a national charity which has spent many years working to rehabilitate offenders has recently decided that the town of Dumfries is in dire need of another foodbank.
Now if you decide that you want to open up a fast food joint selling burgers or fried chicken, there is nothing to stop you buying a deep fat fryer and getting cracked on with it. But if I open ‘Mark’s Burger Bar’, it will seem like yet another dodgy take away. Two bit. Cheap and nasty. 
Well, maybe I want better. Maybe I want more credibility. Maybe I want some real brand recognition. So maybe I will talk my bank into loaning me the cash to buy myself a franchise to open up a McDonalds or a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Fair enough the franchise costs a living fortune, but from the very get go, my place will be part of something bigger. Something massive. And I will reap the benefits of all that lovely wall to wall advertising.
Well the new Dumfries foodbank has chosen to follow Plan B and they have opted to buy themselves a Trussell Trust franchise. If you want to open a foodbank under the Trussell Trust brand which of course has become pretty damn huge over the last three years, then the franchise will set you back £1500 for the first year. In return you'll get loads of advice, marketing tools, and fast track access into Tesco.
Oh yeah.
Nearly forgot!
You also get lots of help with funding. You'll get all the credibility and speadsheets you’ll need to make your case to funders. All the credibility and spreadsheets to make sure you stand out from all those amateurish little foodbanks who are quite frankly so very twentieth century.  
Once we heard that all of this was in the pipeline, we started asking a few questions.
I had a long chat about it with Ewan from the Trussell Trust. I asked him if they had evidence that the needs of hungry people in Dumfries were not being met? No. Not at all. So why were they considering selling a franchise for a new foodbank in the town? Not their decision. They simply vetted any potential new franchise holders to make sure they were fit and proper people to maintain the credibility of the brand.
I spoke with the people who are about to set up the new foodbank. I’m not going to use their name by the way. I don’t know why really. It just doesn’t seem right to do so.
For twelve years, these people have been sending their clients down to us on a regular basis. Have any of their clients ever been turned away?
No
Have any of their clients ever been treated badly by First Base?
No
Have any of their clients ever complained about the food they have received from First Base?
No.
So why the sudden need to open up a foodbank of your own?
Ah well. Here’s the thing. We feel there is an unmet local need.
Like what?
Well we will be adopting the Trussell Trust model.
Which is?
We will only give anyone a maximum of three food parcels to any hungry pewrson. During that time we will help them to resolve all of their problems so that they don’t need any more help. I must admit, this kind of miracle cure seems unlikely with most of the folk we see every day. If the DWP decides to sanction someone for twelve weeks, I don’t see how only giving them a maximum of three food parcels is going to help. If you are drowning under a decade’s worth of accumulated debt and you’ve just been made redundant, I don’t see how everything can be turned around in a week and a half.
But maybe I am just too amateurish. Too twentieth century. 'Mark's Burger Bar', right?
OK, I said. Why not try this one on for size. Ten local agencies already hold a stock of our food parcels to issue to their clients in any way they feel fit. We can deliver twenty boxes to you tomorrow if you like. And if you want to ration your clients to a maximum of three and turn their lives around in a week and a half flat, then the very best of British to you.
For when all is said and done, food is food. You can save yourself £1500 and have emergency boxes of food delivered to you on a guaranteed next day basis and entirely free of charge. Or you can spend £1500 and go to all the bother of setting up a new foodbank in the town that already has the best emergency food provision in Scotland.
Which option do you think they took?
You got it.
£1500 and option B.
It isn’t the end of the world for us, but it is pretty damned annoying. There are plenty of chancers out there who are receiving their full benefits who prefer to spend their cash on much more exciting stuff than food. We are engaged in an ongoing game of cat and mouse with these guys and they will be delighted to hear there is a new show in town. No doubt they will take their sob stories to the new foodbank, pick up their three parcels, and then they'll find their way back to us. These are characters who love nothing more than to play one off against the other. They are past masters. We have a head start, having played the game with these guys for twelve years. They know us and we know them. 
They’re going to love the competition!
And then of course there is the money. We reckon we are seriously efficient. Every month over fifty volunteers from our local community give up their time to help us to collect and pack the food we need. But all charities have bills to pay. All the usual, boring bills like rent and salaries and telephone and heating. To raise the cash, we need we fill out application forms. And when we fill out the forms, we explain how we are the only foodbank in the area and how we feed 5000 people every year through our network of outlets.
Well, things are about to change, for now there will be two application forms for the funders to consider. There will be the form from the small charity who has been doing its thing for 12 years. And there will be another form complete with all manner of ritzy Trussell Trust spreadsheets and Pye charts from the new kid on the block. Mark’s Burger Bar versus McDonalds, right?
As if coming up with the wherewithal to issue 20 emergency food parcels a day isn’t enough of a headache to deal with!
Most annoying of all is the fact that the new foodbank will feel like a slap in the face to a lot of people. All those volunteers and churches and offices who have come together to help us to do what we do. What will they think when the country's number one Foodbank Brand comes marching into town with all guns blazing. The message is loud and clear. You good hearted amateurs have tried your best. And bless you for it. But now it's time to step aside and leave things to the professionals. We are the experts you see. We are the guys with hundreds of foodbanks under our belt. So jolly good and well done and all that. But it's time to step aside, don't you think?
How bloody insulting.
Argghhhhh!
So thanks for that guys.
Welcome to the ugly face of the foodbank game!
        

Friday, March 6, 2015

IS THIS IS THE WEEK WHEN THE ARMY OF 'YES' BECAME AN UNSTOPPABLE JUGGERNAUT?



There are few things as fascinating as witnessing that moment when an established order suddenly loses its grip. During my time on the planet there have been several such moments. Sometimes the final act can be seen coming for weeks and months as was very much the case in the lead up to the live pictures of the helicopters of the US Marine Corps evacuating the last stragglers of American rule in Vietnam. The drama that played out on the Embassy roof in Saigon was pure Holywood. 
On other occasions things changed in the blink of an eye. Nobody saw the crash of the Berlin Wall coming. I can’t remember any great media built up to Nelson Mandela walking out to his freedom. One minute the forces of the Establishment were enjoying their usual vice like grip on power. And then the next minute everything had changed utterly.
Probably the most dramatic moment of this kind was the overthrow of Nicholai Ceaucescu and his ghastly wife on Christmas Day 1989. For years the pair of them had held Romania in a vice like grip. So when a few of his subjects started to get uppity having watched the collapse of the Berlin Wall on the tele, he stepped out onto the balcony of his Presidential Palace to crack the whip. He was the headmaster and the huge crowd in front of him were pupils who were terrified of getting caned in his office. He was utterly confident that he could threaten his people into silence just like he had done for many decades. But it didn’t work out that way. His people didn’t stay meek and silent. Instead they started booing and heckling. With an annoyed expression, Ceaucescu held out his liver spotted hands and demanded silence. 
Deference. Respect. Terror.
Instead his subjects booed all the louder. And then they became a mob. And within hours, they strung him up.
Another version of this kind of thing can be seen when a really, really strong and powerful country decides to step in a to put a much weaker country back in its box. To start with, everything tends to go to plan. Massive military superiority guarantees a rapid victory and a whole bunch of smug gloating. We’re talking the Americans in Iraq and Vietnam or the Russians in Afghanistan or the Israelis in Lebanon.
And for a while all seems well. The war is won and the occupying army starts to get on with the business of locking down power and doing their thing. Only it doesn’t work out that way. There is a honeymoon period of a few months whilst the occupied people begin to get their act together, and then the push back starts. Car bombs and snipers and snarling mobs out on the streets. To start with the occupying powers say this will just be a short term thing. Then they start to struggle to keep the narrative going. Then they call the guerrilla fighters criminals and terrorists and monsters. Then they send in a whole lot more troops who soon start to get killed in ever greater numbers. Then the people at home eventually get fed up with all of the body bags and the ashen faced leaders of the occupation try to sell the idea that the job has been done wonderfully and heroically. Then they leg it out of Dodge with their tails between their legs.
More often than not, there is a moment when it becomes suddenly clear that the occupation forces are doomed to a long and painful failure. The Tet Offensive in 1968 or the battle of Fallujah in 2006 were such moments. Neither battle marked the end of the occupation. Instead they both marked the beginning of the end.
This week has had this kind of 'turning of the tide' feel about it for Scotland. This will surely be remembered as the week when the bitter, desperate taste of defeat on that miserable grey dawn of September 19 finally disappeared from the taste buds of anyone supporting the dream of ‘Yes’.
Two images. 
George Bush on the deck of his aircraft carrier complete with flight jacket and smug smile. David Cameron in front of Number 10, still high from his encounter with a purring Queen. As far as both guys were concerned, they had achieved complete victory. Their enemies were vanquished for ever and ever. The old order was in charge and the old order would remain in charge.
When you Youtube these moments in time, it is impossible not to sense the utter certainty in both men. Both were born with silver spoons in their mouths and they were prepared from a young age to become the champions of the Status Quo. They were the men to make sure all remained rosy in the garden for the great corporations who had bankrolled them all the way to the top. Bush had secured the last great oil reserves on the planet for America whilst Cameron made sure that London would retain full control of the treasure trove under the North Sea.
Neither victory turned out to be anything like as complete as the establishment hoped it would be. As things turned out, the Americans were barely able to extract a liter of Iraqi oil as the country descended into a pit of murderous anarchy. And Cameron? He spoke boldly about how the settled will of the Scottish people would guarantee that London’s last colony would stay firmly under the yoke for at least a generation. Now those words seem so very hollow.
In the weeks after winning the ‘No’ vote, the Establishment was clearly convinced that business as usual would be the order of the day. The Smith Commission offered up a few scraps and enabled them to pretend they had kept their promises. And then the script was supposed to be crystal clear. The misery of defeat would become the high water mark of the SNP. The ‘NO’ vote would slowly but surely consign then to the dustbin of history. And for the umpteenth time in history, the people of Scotland would have been put back in their box and in their box they would once again stay.
But it didn’t work out that way, did it Dave?
Not even nearly.
Instead of returning meekly to their box, 100,000 Scots signed on the dotted line for the SNP and vowed to continue the fight for as long as the fight was going to take. At first the Establishment seemed to find the whole thing mildly amusing. They were minded to stand back and allow the Scots to have their little tantrum and then it would be business as usual. All the online nonsense would soon die down and by the time the General Election came around, well, all would be as it should be. All would be exactly as it always has been.
But the Scots doggedly refused to follow the script. And the insurgency just kept on growing. And the noisy voices just kept on getting noisier.
And slowly a truly awful picture started to emerge as poll after poll published their results. The SNP were supposed to have peaked. Their great leader had thrown in the towel and left the field of battle. The hated Nats were supposed to be nothing more than bit part players in the May Election.
Instead, poll after poll showed that the insurgency was gathering momentum. Worse still, it became increasingly clear that the Scots had found their very own warrior queen. Nicola Sturgeon is on target to become our very own Angela Merkel and her opponents need to think long and hard before they try to slag her off. Not all Germans vote for Merkel, but my God they get seriously defensive when any foreigner has a go at her. She is theirs and they have her back. It now feels like even Scots who are diehard Labour or Tory voters get seriously agitated when any English voice is heard to have a go at Nicola.
A couple of weeks ago, the Tories decided it was time to fill up their war chest ready for May. Money would buy victory. That is what the playbook promises. So they staged their fancy black and white ball and invited any dodgy Russian billionaire they could find to come along and shell out hundreds of thousands for the privilege of some shoe shopping with Teresa May.
The money duly rolled in, but my oh my the cash cost them dear. It really wasn’t a good look, especially when viewed from north of the border. It soon became an even worse look when Channel 4 caught Rifkind and Straw with their snouts deep in the trough.
Suddenly everything felt like Ceaucescu on his balcony frantically patting the air and demanding calm. Obedience. Respect.
A few days ago Stuart Campbell decided he needed to fill the 'Wings over Scotland' war chest ready for the fray in May. Once again he laid out his modest costs and explained how he would spend any surplus funds.
Then he crossed his fingers and put his future in the hands of the army of ‘Yes’. Would they be willing to keep him going, even though 55% of Scots had voted ‘No’? It must have been a genuinely nervous moment for the lad. It takes bottle to lay yourself on the line so very publicly. If his attempt to raise £45,000 in a month was to crash and burn, the Unionists would dance on his grave with the untrammeled joy of ravers on ecstasy.
But they never got the chance. Stuart raised £90,000 in the first 24 hours of his appeal. And I am pretty sure that there were no dodgy Russian oligarchs in the mix. I have just got my act together and stumped up my tenner. I was investor number 2489. One of those little people who was supposed to be back in the box. But we are not in the box. And when Stuart asked for help to continue his work as one of the foremost insurgents of the ‘Yes’ dream, we were all more than happy to give him what he asked for. We are a bit like all those hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese volunteers who ignored the constant B52 strikes and wheeled bicycle loads of supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail. The faces in the crowd in front of Ceaucescu’s Presidential Palace who continued to heckle and boo.
Stuart has what he needs and now he is primed and ready to continue the fight.
And then came the latest round of Lord Ashcroft polls.
Wow.
Stunning.
A projected 56 out of 59 seats for the SNP.
The storm was supposed to have blown itself out by now. We were all supposed to have got tired and thrown in the towel. We were supposed to have thrown down our swords and slunk back home to our schemes to watch daytime TV and eat too many crisps.
We were supposed to have accepted defeat.
Like the Viet Cong and the Mujahadeen and the Romanians and Nelson Mandela of the citizens of Fallujah were supposed to have accepted defeat. By now, Jim Murphy was supposed to have started to turn everything around for Scottish Labour. By now, the circulation of the Daily Record was supposed to be back at pre Referendum levels. By now, the BBC was supposed to be our Auntie again.
None of the above.
And there are only a matter of weeks left for the Establishment to find a way of turning it all around. Apparently a vote for the SNP means a vote for Cameron, according to Jim Murphy and his shell shocked lieutenants. How utterly pathetic. No wonder they get booed every time they try to spin this pitiful line. Just like Ceaucescu got booed all those years ago.
Things are taking shape for the vote in May. The Establishment parties will have their billboard adverts and a discredited media behind them, but no people. The insurgents will have people and people and more people.
We’ll all pushing our bikes down the Ho Chi Minh trail and the threat of the carpet bombing isn’t working any more. So you best get your helicopters serviced guys. And you best get your pilots trained up on how to land them on a roof.
Because this is the week when the army of ‘Yes’ became an unstoppable juggernaut.        

Thursday, February 26, 2015

SOME THOUGHTS ON THE ABSOLUTELY HORRENDOUS COST WE ALL PAY FOR LAWYERS

OK. Before cracking on I really need to exempt our First Base Agency Chairman Hilary from any of the thoughts about lawyers which are about to appear on this page. Hilary is a complete star in every respect and she is absolutely the kind of force for good lawyer that John Grisham has written about to such effect over the years.

So. Please consider that paragraph to be a disclaimer. Is it legally binding? Christ knows.

I recently got to thinking about the massive legal bills we all pay without realising it when my two sons were trawling the web in search of a sane motor insurance quote. Of course the ludicrous sums the young people of today are expected to fork out for their first couple of years driving are widely known. The going rate seems to be about £1800. For a newly qualified driver working full time on the minimum wage, this represents about a sixth of their total income which is quite frankly ridiculous. When I paid my first insurance bill back in 1977 I had a job delivering drinks to tables at the weekly Country and Western night at a local pup. Yeah. I know. A Country and Western night in Blackburn 1977! There were some sights, believe you me.

Anyway.

I cannot recall exactly how much I had to cough up to insure my venerable old VW Beetle, but I don’t remember it being particularly painful. It certainly was nothing like a sixth of my very part time income. So what has changed? Are cars that much more expensive? No. My ten year old Beetle cost me £400. Today I knock around in a ten year old Volvo Estate which set me back £300. Are the roads that much more dangerous? I very much doubt it. Car safety has come on in leaps and bounds and there were no speed cameras back then. Were the first time drivers of my generation that much more sensible that today’s? Aye right. I think it is fair to say that the youth of the late seventies was a whole lot more anarchic that today’s youngsters. After all it was the era of raging football hooliganism, street riots and punk rock.

So what has changed?

The law has changed.

Back in 1977 it was illegal for lawyers to chase ambulances in order to offer their services on a no win, no fee basis. It is yet another regrettable American import that we have opened our doors to. Now you only have to listen to a commercial radio station for half an hour to hear at least five ads for ambulance chasing law firms.

The result is the era of the cricked neck where a minor shunt can lead to an insurance company shelling out hundreds of thousands for the cricked neck of the driver of the car in front. Back in 77 the bill might have been fifty quid or so for a dented rear end. Now it can run to a couple of hundred thousand and the ambulance chaser in the middle of the deal will trouser a cool £80,000. Obviously the insurance companies have to find a way to get this cash back and they do so by crucifying the young.

Three years after I took my first spin in the Beetle as a newly qualified driver, I started out on what was supposed to be a career as a lawyer. Against all sensible odds this particular grammar school boy from Blackburn has blagged his way into a place to study law at Magdalene College, Cambridge. They gave us a couple of days to settle in and then gathered all the wannabe legal eagles together and loaded us up onto a train to London. We were met the other end by an old boy of the college who took us along to his chambers. Over coffee he basically told us how much money we would all make if we were to grit our teeth and eat up all the six hundred page books they were about to give us. Then he took as along to court to watch the whole thing play out in practice.

From the viewing gallery we got an hour long snapshot of a real live case. A woman from a high rise block in South London somewhere had arrived home with four heavy bags of shopping. The front door to her block was spring loaded so she used her back to push it open. This nearly worked, but not quite. It turned out that the door springs were stronger than the woman. The result? The shopping bearing woman was propelled outwards and onto a hard landing on the pavement. One broken arm and a law suit. She was suing the local council for putting too strong springs onto the front door of the block. The local council was defending itself by saying that the woman should have put her shopping bags down before negotiating the door. There were tables brim full of lawyers and paper. I asked a few questions. How long was the case going to last? Three days. How much would that cost? About £60,000. What would she get if she won? About £5000.

And there it was. The racket to end all rackets. All of the bills for the lawyers representing the woman were being settled by legal aid. As in the tax payer. All of the bills for the lawyers representing the Council were being paid from Council funds. As in the tax payer. So the whole £60,000 performance was being paid for by the tax payer in order to decide whether or not the very same tax payer should shell out a further £5000 for a broken arm.

Win, lose or draw, and the lawyers were guaranteed to get paid a living fortune. It seemed to me that the whole thing was a carefully choreographed charade designed to allow a few gilded individuals to get their hands on a fortune of tax payer’s cash. The law of the land was carefully set up to make sure that only fully qualified lawyers and judges were allowed to partake in the decision as to whether the woman form the tower block was to get her £5000. It was in fact a complete and utter racket. A monopoly of the very worst kind and on the train back to Cambridge I decided I wanted no part of it.

The next day I ended my three day legal career and switched to History.

I never cease to be amazed at how the monopoly of the legal world seems to avoid any great attention. Over recent years bankers, politicians, policemen and TV companies have all taken it in turns to be roasted on the spit while lawyers have been given a free pass. How can it be that the legal profession is allowed to operate in its own cosy cartel world with such impunity? Well I discovered the answer to that one way back in 1980. Ever since Charles 1 had his head removed and the House of Commons took control of the reins of power, over half of the MPs on the green benches have always been lawyers. They look after their own. Oh do they ever look after their own.

The difference now is that the bills we are all expected to pick up are a whole lot bigger than the £60,000 we shelled out in order to decide whether a broken arm was worth compensation.

For the last couple of weeks the HSBC tax dodging story has raged across the airwaves. Every man and his dog from all corners of the land are disgusted and appalled. How can it be!!!!

There is general agreement that about £80 billion’s worth of tax is being dodged. And there is a general agreement that everything possible should be done to collect the £80 billion of dodged tax.

So fair enough. Why the hell isn’t it collected? After all £80 billion is plenty enough to get rid of Britain’s structural deficit in one fell swoop. It seems to me that the truth is to be found when you listen to what the managers of HMRC have to say on the matter. If they decide to roll up their sleeves and set out on the task of getting the likes of Amazon and Starbucks to cough up their dues, they know exactly what will happen. Basically the mega corporations can afford way better lawyers than the Government can afford. It means that HMRC will be tied up in court for years on end and all the while their legal bills will go up and up and up. And in the end, the £2000 an hour lawyers representing the corporations will almost certainly win the day and the bosses at HMRC will have to try and explain to the hard boys in the Treasury why they have shelled out millions to lawyers and still got their arses kicked out of court. The corporations don’t care how much they pay out because it will always be a fraction of what their tax bill would be should they ever be forced to settle it in full.

So the easiest option for the managers at HMRC is to leave things be. In the end human nature will always win the day. If you have a career and a heavy London mortage, are you really going to put it all at risk by signing off on £20 million’s worth of legal fees to take on Amazon and lose? And then get yourself fired for your troubles?

Of course not.

And they don’t. They chase broke little businesses instead whose overdrafts won’t run to lawyers. The playground is never, ever level. If HMRC take on Amazon, the company will always have more and better lawyers and therefore win the day in court. On the flip side, when HMRC takes on a lad with a painting and decorating business in Barnsley, the exact opposite happens. He cannot afford to partake in the lawyer arms race and so he throws in the towel and either pays up what they say he owes or he goes bust.

So the bills the dodged £80 billion should settle remain unpaid. So who pays them? We do of course. How much? It’s about £1500 a year for every man, woman and child in Britain. All to allow a handful of uber lawyers to stay among the ranks of the super rich.

Cheers for that.

Right now there is a provision in the NHS accounts for £22 billion to be paid out in compensation. This is the hard cash end of the story that starts with all of those ambulance chaser adverts on the radio. As a rule of thumb the ambulance chases rake in 40% of anything they can shake the NHS down for.

As in £8.8 billion.

Gee Wizz.

That’s about 10% of the annual NHS budget. I wouldn’t be surprised if we are paying more on lawyers than we pay on nurses. Obviously if someone gets screwed by lousy treatment in hospital then it is only fair that they are compensated for it. But do we really have to gift £8.8 million to lawyers to make it happen? Well so long as those green benches of the House of Commons are home to hundreds of lawyers I think it is pretty clear that the gravy train will continue to roll smoothly down the tracks.

There really is no racket like the law. Maybe I should have stayed on the train myself all those years ago. I don’t suppose I would have been bouncing around in a £300 Volvo estate had I stayed the course.

What the hell. Sinatra time. Regrets? I’ve had a few. But then again…..!!       

Monday, February 23, 2015

HOW SCOTLAND IS BECOMING AN ISLAND IN A DARK OCEAN OF RACISM.



The public reaction to last week's home movie of bunch of Chelsea Neanderthals meeting a black man on a Parisian train has been entirely predictable. In many ways this predictability has been a genuinely good thing. Not only have the majority of Brits expressed their shame and disgust at the antics of the racist thugs in the carriage, but they have also clearly meant it. And that is indeed genuine progress. What has been less constructive has been the endlessly spouted belief that this kind of thing had been consigned to history.
In some ways I can sympathise with this view. If you take what goes on in football stadiums as a measure of racism, then a lot has indeed changed over the last twenty five years.
When I first started going along to spend my Saturday afternoons on the Kop, the Liverpool crowd had a well rehearsed medley of songs ready and waiting for the occasional black player who turned out for the opposition. The most basic reaction to the sight of a black player was for thousands of fans to do their best to make loud monkey noises. ‘Get back on your jam jar’ was a rather dismal attempt at wit. Was it a minority? Was it hell. Were Liverpool fans alone in showing this kind of casual racism? Not remotely. Back in those oddly dark days of the 70’s it was absolutely the norm.
Thankfully my dad always took a pretty ferocious view about that kind of thing and had I ever joined in and made like a chimpanzee I would have received a proper hiding.
Everything changed on the Kop with arrival of John Barnes who quickly won the crowd over with his sheer drop dead genius. The first time Everton came to Anfield after Johnnie pulled on a red shirt, the Bluenoses pelted him with bananas when he took a corner. It was the one and only time I have ever seen fighting at a Merseyside derby.
Soon every team in the land had at least one black player in their ranks and by and large the chants disappeared into history.
Chelsea remained one of the last bastions for the Neo Nazi nutters. I remember going along to watch Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in the early 90’s. I was with Carol’s cousin, Andy, who is a big Chelsea fan. He had got us two tickets in the West Stand where he promised the best atmosphere was to be found.
Atmosphere? I guess you could call it that. It was more like being at a Nuremburg Rally than a football match. We were surrounded by guys who were adorned with as fine an array of Nazi tattoos as you could ever wish to see. The Liverpool fans were up in the tier above us which meant that most of the lads around us spent the whole game standing on their seats with their backs to the game offering Nazi salutes to the visiting Scousers.
I have to admit that the whole thing made me feel pretty damned weird due to the fact that Andy is very much black. Unbelievably none of it seemed to phase him much.
These days enthusiastic Nazi saluting would lead to a lifetime ban and a cancellation of a hugely expensive season ticket. CCTV is everywhere and racist behaviour is no longer tolerated.
Does this mean that it has gone away? I guess the antics of the morons on the train suggests that it probably hasn’t.
As the white half of a mixed race couple, I have had a very personal close up view of racism over the years. Have things improved? In some ways yes, in other ways no. Up here in Scotland racist incidents are thankfully rare. But my home town of Blackburn has descended into a pit of race hate as the whites and Asians have segregated themselves in a similar way to the Protestants and Catholics of Portadown.
Is Britain a better place to be a mixed race couple in 2014 than when we met in 1989? Absolutely. Especially Scotland.
But that only paints a small corner of the much bigger story that emerges with every passing year. To see the remorseless march of racism you need to leave these shores. You see, we have become the exception, not the rule.
In the last months before the Soviet Union imploded like a soggy cardboard box, Carol and I took a few trips to the other side of the old Iron Curtain – East Germany, Hungary and most memorably, the winter wonderland of Leningrad. Everything was crumbling and people were queuing for hours on end to buy rotten cabbage. There was no neon and no traffic. Heroic posters adorned the vast walls of godforsaken Stalin era tower blocks and monumental factories threw thousands of tonnes of smoke into the leaden skies.
The old Eastern Bloc was a wall to wall bleak place, but the people seemed genuinely glad to see us. We talked life and the universe for hours over subsidised vodka and the Russians we met were straight out of Tolstoy and Pasternak.
Over the last couple of decades we have made several more trips East and each time it has got steadily worse. Now to visit St Petersburg as a mixed race couple would be borderline suicidal. There is a new rite of passage for any wannabe who wants to join a Russian Nazi gang. You need to find a black person on a bus or tube train or pavement. Then you beat the living daylights out of them whilst your pals film the event on their phones. Once the beating is posted up on YouTube, you are duly welcomed into the club. Now the walls which once carried those vast heroic posters of flaxen haired steelworkers and tractor drivers are adorned with spray painted swastikas.
A few years ago we got lost in Vilnius, Lithuania. All of a sudden we were driving along potholed roads through ranks of monstrous tower blocks where every square inch seemed to be home to a swastika. I doubt if the city had as many swastikas on display back in 1941 when the Wehrmacht came to town and the psychopaths of the Einsatzgruppen reduced the Jewish population of Vilnius from 40% to zero. What would have happened if one of those gaping pot holes had caused a puncture? Going by the expressions of the pedestrians when they spotted Carol’s black face, I doubt it would have been anything good. Hospital at best.
One by one, we have struck the countries of Eastern Europe off the list of places it is OK to visit. Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia….
Sadly the march of the swastikas now goes well beyond the countries of the defunct Bolshevik dream. The thugs of Golden Dawn make the streets of Athens a bad place for a black person to be once darkness has fallen, particularly as the rules of austerity mean that most of the street lamps have been doused. We haven’t had many smiles in Portugal, Spain or France either. In fact the only place on mainland Europe where we feel as comfortable as we do in Scotland is Germany in general and Berlin in particular. My oh my have things changed over the last seventy years!
All over Europe parties of the right get stronger and stronger and there is a reason for that.
At home we celebrate the collapse of the BNP but it is pretty obvious that any racist looking to spend quality time with a few kindred spirits need look no further than UKIP. Fair enough they are a very pale shadow of the far right nutters who are making such electoral inroads all around the fringes of Europe, but it is pretty clear that UKIP don’t like foreigners much.
However the presence of daubed swastikas on crumbling walls is by no means the only indicator of a quietly rising tide of racism. The media reaction to the recent Paris killings was instructive. Seventeen innocent civilians were murdered in the most dramatic fashion and media coverage was wall to wall and then some. Why? Because they were innocent white civilians in the capital of a white European country. At the very same time the sound of automatic weapons echoed around the streets of Paris, Boko Haram were slaughtering between 2000 and 3000 entirely innocent civilians in a small town in Northern Nigeria that none of us has ever heard of. So why all the attention for 17 deaths and barely any attention at all for 3000 deaths? Easy. White deaths count more that black deaths. White deaths are news. Black deaths are not. A black life counts less than a white life.
Check out what is happening in the Mediterranean right now. Every week hundreds of desperate souls die desperate deaths as their inadequate boats sink. Who are these people? They are entirely innocent civilians fleeing a number of brutal wars. They are brown people and black people and so they don’t really count. The Royal Navy was down there until a few weeks ago saving lives. But now that particular activity has been stopped because the bean counters of the MOD have deemed it to be too expensive. I wonder if the same view would have been taken if it had been a white European country under attack from the ISIS long beards. Imagine it. Thousands of terrified men, women and children fleeing the crazed Jihadi murderers and rapists in rickety boats. White men, women and children. Would the MOD bean counters have been happy to let them drown in the icy waters of the Med? Maybe, but there would have been a one hell of a public storm.
But when hundreds of black and brown men, women and children plunge down into their watery graves every week nobody cares all that much. Where is the growing media campaign? Where is Bob Geldof?        
Conspicuous by their absence. That’s where. Just like the eyes of the world had no interest in registering Boko Haram’s genocide.
This is the place where all the anti immigrant rhetoric inevitably takes us. Fair enough, nobody feels it is OK to stand on the seats of the West Stand at Stamford Bridge to sing the Horst Wessel song any more. But we seem well enough able to shrug our shoulders with indifference when thousands of people who happen to be a darker colour than us are shot or drowned.
Thankfully Scotland is very much a beacon of light in a world that gets darker by the day. Carol and I certainly chose the right place to bring up our two brown boys.
These are times when the old political order is creaking at the seams and new insurgent parties are making the grey suits of the Establishment quake in their boots all over the Western World.
The French have the Front National polling at 30%
The English have UKIP polling at 20%
We have the SNP polling at 50%
Spot the odd one out!
I can only hope and pray that the seeping racist cancer remains south of the border for as Edward Grey so famously said a century ago – the lamps are going out all over Europe.