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.

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.      

Monday, February 16, 2015

WHAT OTHER JOB WOULD ALLOW YOU TO BEHAVE LIKE THIS?



I guess the picture above clearly demonstrates my inferior IT skills! Anyway. At least the headline is readable. The article is from our local paper and it is typical of the extraordinary amount of press attention I received over the days that followed the Right Honourable David Mundell MP basically calling me a liar. Over a week has now passed and I suppose it is clear that David will not be accepting our invitation to come along to First Base to serve some food parcels. It also seem unlikely that he is about to heed the advice of Joan McAlpine MSP and offer some kind of public apology.


I can happily live without an apology. Sticks and stones and all that. I am rather more miffed that he has bottled the opportunity to come along and meet a few of the victims of his Government’s Welfare Reforms face to face.


A couple of the journalists who called me said that they had tried and tried to get David on the line for some kind of comment without any success whatsoever. His way of responding to making a complete berk of himself was to bury his head as far down in the sand as it would go.


This got me thinking. What other profession would allow anyone to get away with acting in this way.


Maybe the best thing to do is to spin things around here. This year First Base is receiving funding from the local Council to support our food parcel work. As far as I know everyone is happy enough with the bang we are giving them for their stretched buck. But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that they are not happy at all.


So here’s a scenario.


The Council awards First Base some cash to serve emergency food to local folk who have nothing to eat. But the word on the street is that things are not going to plan. First Base have promised that anyone who issued with a food parcel will have enough grub for three meals a day for half a week. That is what it said on the tin First Base showed to the Council in order to get the cash. However it doesn’t seem like things are working out that way in practice. There are reports that people are turning up with referrals only to be told that there is no food to be had. Some people are being given a miserable bag containing nothing more than a tin of beans and a bag of dried lentils. There are tales of mouldy bread and rancid butter.


Basically, people are not remotely happy. First Base have promised to give hungry people some decent grub and in practice they are failing to do so.


So. What next? Well the Councillors obviously aren’t happy. They write to First Base and insist that the manager attend a public meeting to answer questions. What have you done with all the money? How come you are still getting paid but there is no money for emergency food?


Fair questions, right?


And one of the Labour councillors is particularly forensic in his line of questions. And I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all.


And so I snap back at him and say that the only reason he is saying any of this is that he was high profile local member of the Better Together campaign.


Such an ill considered and stupid answer to fully justifiable questions would have played out the same as David’s response played out.


Then what?


Well the Management Committee who govern First Base would go ballistic. Would I get fired? I reckon I might well be. I reckon I would deserve to get fired. My job after all is to represent the charity and I would have failed utterly in that regard. If I managed to escape the axe, I would be required to offer a full and unreserved apology to the councillor in question for questioning his integrity in such an unacceptable way. Then I would be required to write a press release confirming the fact that I had been wrong to say what I had said and that I am sorry for saying it. Very sorry.


The more I think of it, I cannot imagine keeping my job if I were to behave like that. And you know what? I wouldn’t deserve to keep it.


Is this a fair comparison?


I think it is. First Base is provided with Tax Payer’s money to provide half a week’s worth of food to people who have nothing to eat. If in practice our shelves are empty and people are turned away and left to go hungry, then we would have some pretty serious questions to answer and as the Project Manager it would be my job to face the music.


David’s government has taken hundreds and hundreds of millions of pounds worth of tax payer’s money and spent it on their Welfare Reform programme. Their justification for spending so much of our cash on this venture has been twofold. On the one hand, they have promised this kind of Victorian tough love will give the poor and the needy the kind of leg up they need. Well, the fact that millions of Brits have needed to visit the likes of First Base in order to eat suggests that they have failed utterly in this regard. On the other hand, they have insisted that the harshness of their Welfare Reforms has been a vital part of their heroic efforts to get the National Debt under control. Well that hasn’t exactly worked, has it guys? The debt has more or less doubled on your watch and for a while the only you could sell Government bonds was to print money and buy them yourselves.


Anyone with half a brain can see that the Welfare Reforms have been a cruel and brutal fiasco which have cost us all a fortune. The Scottish Parliament has every right to be pissed off at this. After all we are footing more than our share of the bills and The Westminster Government has put all of our natural resources up as security to the hard boys who run the money markets.


So is it right that the only Tory MP in Scotland is summoned to account for what his government has done with all our money? You bet it is.


Just like it would be only right and proper for me to be summoned to appear before local councillors to be asked where all their cash had gone.


But here is where the differences start to emerge. Were I to attend such a summons, I would be expected to behave in a professional and courteous manner. Were I to fail in this regard, I would have some very serious questions to answer from my bosses and I am pretty sure that I would lose my job.


David on the other hand obviously lives in a completely different world. For a start he is paid a bloody site more than I get paid. His response to making a fool of both himself and his employers was to hide in his bedroom like some kind of sulking teenager.


Hide, hide, hide.


And if you hide away for long enough it will hopefully all go away. Well of course it is nice to hide away when the going gets tough. The difference is that there are very, very few professions where you get away with choosing to run away when faced with a difficult situation.


And yet politicians seem to think it is OK to do it all the time. It is ridiculous that the standards of behaviour that are expected of the rest of us as an absolute minimum don’t count a jot for then.


Can you think of any other job where you get paid £65,000 a year to behave like they behave at Prime Minister’s Questions? Can you ever remember behaving like that when you were at school without being sent to the headmaster to face the music? I seem to recall my teachers taking a pretty hard line on any of us who succumbed to the temptation to make loud farmyard noises in class. Loud farmyard noses in the classroom at 12 years old is a big no. Loud farmyard noises on the floor of the House of Commons at fifty something years old is fine and dandy.


How are your farmyard noises, David? Can you moo and bray with best of them?


We elect these people and pay them handsomely to lead us. To provide leadership.


We don’t cough up £65,000 a year and a copper bottomed pension for you to hide in your bedrooms the moment the going gets a bit tough.


In the same week that David made a such pratt of himself and locked his bedroom door, his colleague Nicky Morgan the Education Secretary managed to cover herself in similar glory. She appeared in front of the media with a beaming ‘vote for me’ smile and proudly announced that her government would make sure that every 11 year old in England will be able to do their 12 times table by the time they leave primary school.
Just so long as we all vote Tory in May.


So OK.

You’re the Education Secretary – salary £145,492 plus expenses.


You have a whole department of civil servants at your beck and call.


You have a whole bunch of super smart young things with starred first degrees from Oxford falling over each other to prove how completely super they are in order to be awarded the chanced of a safe seat in leafy Surrey.


So you’ve got all kinds of highly paid, high fliers all around you.


And here’s the thing.


You are going to go out and do a Press Conference to announce all 11 year old will be expected to be able to do their 12 times table.


Who will be at the Press Conference, Nicky?


Journalists.


And what are journalists like, Nicky?


Cynical. Hard bitten. Bastards.


And do journalist take every opportunity to trip up smug politicians and make them look like idiots, Nicky?


Of course they do! BASTARDS!!!


So what do you think they are about to do when you make your big announcement, Nicky?


They are going ask me what 11 x 12 is.


Dead right they are, Nicky. So what’s the smart play here, Nicky?


Mug up on my 12 times table.


Bang on, Nicky. Mug up on your 12 times table.


So did Nicky mug up on her 12 times table?


Dream on. Instead she had a good laugh about the fact that she was refusing to do 11 x 12. And quite right too! It is fair enough to give an 11 year old a hard tome for not knowing the answer to 11 x 12. Of course it is. The little shit IS 11 when all is said and done.


But if anyone seriously expects her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Education on £145,492 per annum plus expenses to be able to answer 11 x 12, then they are clearly being completely unreasonable.


Nicky batted the demands for mental arithmetic away with grinning aplomb and moved on to her next ground breaking announcement.


It was a big one.


A huge one that must have had the bastard journalists drop jawed. It was massive and bold and ambitious and no wonder Nicky was grinning so very widely.


Vote Tory in the next election and this is what we’ll do for you.


We are going to make schools in England truly world class.


We commit that schools in England will enter the top five countries in the world when it comes to …..


Wait for it…..


Oh you really, really need to wait for it…..


ENGLISH!!!


You really couldn’t bloody well make it up.


 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

THE ENDURING NASTINESS OF THE BITTER WINNERS ENSURES THAT THE HEART OF 'YES' CONTINUES TO BEAT STRONGLY.




A couple of days ago Twitter let me know that something was going down. Apparently I had been bad mouthed up in the Scottish Parliament and all kinds of ‘Yes’ stalwarts were jumping up and down with outrage.
What the hell….?
A couple of calls and I had the bones of the pathetic story.
The Right Honourable David Mundell MP had been summoned to appear before a committee of Scottish MSP’s. He was there to field questions about the impact of the Welfare Reforms and to answer the burning question of the day – are people being forced to keep body and soul together care of food banks because of your Government’s general cruelty and wickedness?
When you think about it, there was something almost historic about David’s appearance. Basically the whole of the Scottish Tory party in Westminster had been hauled North to account for being heartless and horrid.
OK. A cheap point. More pandas at Edinburgh Zoo than …..
Anyway.
I gather David had a pretty rough ride despite the fact he had a couple high powered minders from the Department of Work and Pensions along to watch his back. He managed to heroically hold the party line for a good while and repeatedly used the cunning ploy of insisting on being given the National Insurance numbers of any affected individuals before being willing to make any kind of comment.
The finish line was in sight when he finally dropped the ball and made a complete and utter pratt of himself.
Our local MSP Joan McAlpine put some evidence to him which she had taken from a blog I wrote about the crisis up in Kelloholm a few months back. No doubt the super clever wiz kids from the DWP would have had little concern at this point. Kelloholm? What the hell is Kelloholm? Who gives a shit about Kelloholm? Little did they realise that a raw nerve had been exposed and David was about to blow it big time. They were supposed to have his back. They were supposed to make sure he didn’t make a dick of himself. But how could they have possibly seen it coming…….?
He blew it.
He told the committee that he would take anything that came out of the mouth of Mark Frankland with a pinch of salt.
'Why on earth is that?' asked a puzzled but no doubt chuffed to bits Joan. Here’s the spade David. Please, please, please ...............just pick it up and dig…..
He dug.
Because Mark Frankland was a very, very prominent ‘Yes’ campaigner!
Oh David. You silly old sod. And you a lawyer who had once upon a time sent nice fat invoices to those charming chaps at BT. You the professional politician getting by on £65K a year plus expenses.
And yet you decided to dismiss a guy managing a food bank for no other reason than the fact that he was a ‘Yes’ man.
Not smart David. Not smart at all.
A bit like strangling a six year old's pet kitten. In public. On TV. Wearing an 'I love Maggie' T shirt. With a big cheesy grin on your face.
The outrage exploded within minutes and it raged over the social media for a whole day. It meant that I spent yesterday in the middle of a mild media storm. Most of the journalists who called me seemed to expect that I would be a tearful wreck having been castigated by the whole of the Tory party in Scotland. The narrative couldn’t have been any better. In the blue corner - a small, heroic little food bank gallantly feeding the poor and hungry against all odds. In the red corner - the wicked bullies of the Westminster Tory Party. It was Nixon carpet bombing the Ho Chi Minh trail. It was Hitler invading the Sudetenland. It was Putin grabbing the Crimea.
Amazingly enough, I didn’t feel the need to seek any trauma counseling and First Base seemed to survive the body blow pretty well. Twenty of so food parcels went out of the door and Lesley and Iain were hugely amused that David had called me a downright cad and a liar on the floor of the Scottish Parliament.
So much for a supportive working environment.
I may as well re-iterate the key message I gave the reporters here in this blog. Since the Welfare Reforms kicked in, we have handed out about 20,000 food parcels. Each and every one of those food parcels comes complete with a back story. Each and every one of those food parcels has a reason. You know what David, people actually don’t much like having to come to a place like ours to get some food. They come for the simple reason that they have no choice. Well they do have a choice. I suppose they could do the decent thing and starve. We collect these stories. We collate these stories and if we see a trend, we pass the information along up the chain to our political leaders.
Like every other food bank in Britain, we have found that the vast majority of the people we see who have no money to buy any grub are in such a position because they have been screwed over by the Welfare Reforms.
I am pretty sure that David doesn’t think I am lying when I say that we have handed out 20,000 food parcels in the last four years. What he thinks I am lying about is the real reason why these people have come through the doors of First Base. Maybe they are not hungry at all? Maybe they actually have cupboards filled to bursting point but they just can’t resist the chance of a freebie? Maybe each and every one of them are blaggards, scoundrels, scroungers and cads. And obviously as a ‘very, very prominent ‘Yes’ campaigner’ I couldn’t possibly own up to the fact that in reality all is rosy in the garden. In truth, there is no hunger whatsoever in Dumfries. In truth, nobody has been sanctioned or told they are as fit as a fiddle having been ill for years. No. The truth is that all the cupboards are full and Dumfries is home to hundreds and hundreds of scam artists who have conned their way into some free grub.
Seriously, David?
Don’t be so bloody daft.
A few months ago Joan McAlpine MSP came along and spent a day with us at First Base. She handed out food parcels and had a craic with those who needed them. You are more than welcome to come along to do the same David. It would be a pleasure to have you. And if after serving twenty or so of our clients you still feel like anything we say should be taken with a pinch of salt,, then fair enough. It’s a free country, right? We’re all entitled to our opinion.
The kind of instinctive nastiness David showed the other day has been a feature of the ‘No’ side’s behaviour in the weeks and months since the big vote. Nothing has worked out the way they expected and they hate it.
What bitter winners they have become.
On September 19th they gave us a very clear message. We won. You lost. That’s it. It’s over and don’t you dare speak about it ever again. We are the top dogs. We are in charge. You are a bunch of losers. Get over it. Live with it. Doff your bloody caps.
Peasants.
Well, maybe not quite that! But you get my drift.
The trouble is that the Peasant’s Revolt hasn’t gone away. Instead it has continued to grow and gather momentum. Against all the odds, the heart of ‘Yes’ is still beating as strongly as ever. Maybe even stronger.
And how those good people from Better Together hate it. And let’s face it, they haven’t found a way to be good winners. And every time they can’t help themselves and go and verbalise their bitterness and nastiness, the people of Scotland hate them a little bit more.
We have seen quite a bit of this stuff at First Base in the months since September. On several occasions I have left messages with local councilors regarding the problems a client of mine is facing. Before the Referendum these messages would have provoked a return call within an hour or two. Not any more. Now the messages remain unanswered. No prizes for guessing why. What is completely out of order is the fact that this does not punish me. Instead it punishes my clients who are some of the most vulnerable people in the community.
First Base will be 12 years old in June. We have had 11 Christmases. For the first ten Christmases we received cards from the town’s two elected politicians. And this of course was entirely usual. The local MP and MSP send a card to a small, front line charity who is doing its best to support constituents who are having a hard time.
And the cards were addressed to ‘Everyone at First Base’.
But this Christmas there were no cards!
Somehow orders had been issued to whoever was in charge of the Christmas card list for the name of The First Base Agency to be removed. And duly removed we were.
How unbelievably petty. What was particularly ridiculous was the fact that the card was not to me, the manager. The card was to everyone – our Management Committee, our staff, our volunteers and our clients. All of us. But just because the manager decided to speak at ‘Yes’ meetings, everyone else was somehow held collectively responsible. I seem to recall that Stalin liked to play that particular card. Some guy might have been bold enough to criticise the Great Leader and his whole family would be shipped off to Siberia.
Was anyone at First Base bothered? Of course we weren’t. We get bothered when public servants refuse to pick up the phone to help out our clients. Their constituents. And I dare say we will get pretty short shrift should we apply for any funding in the foreseeable future as the Better Together parties dominate the local Council.
So the charity is made to suffer for the crimes of its Manager. And the crimes I committed? I chose to enjoy my right of free speech. It's funny how the very same people who were so keen to defend the rights of Charlie Hebdo to draw cartoons of the Prophet cannot stand the idea of a charity manager speaking up for ‘Yes’.
I need to point out that this is NOT everyone. We DID get a card from Alex Ferguson MSP, just like I knew we would. Alex is a first class individual in every way and it comes as no surprise whatsoever that he is not one of the bitter winners.
I must also mention David’s opponent in the coming election, Archie Dryburgh. Archie is a mate of mine and he has been a massive supporter of our work with local veterans. During the campaign we knocked ten bells out of each other during a debate in Langholm, but once the dust settled there were no hard feelings on either side.
Sadly, classy and dignified winners like Alex and Archie have proven to be thin on the ground. The majority of those in the Better Together camp have behaved like spoilt kids denied the latest Iphone.
Sound familiar David?
Let’s just hope they all carry on and continue to show such a constant task of class. The more they live up to the stereotype the better. And the heart of ‘Yes’ will beat stronger with every passing day.
Now. 
I guess I need to get on the phone to my GP to arrange a sick note. Doctor, I have been through a terrible trauma…… 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

THE SAD, THE TRAGIC AND THE IDIOTIC ON A NINE HUNDRED MILE ROAD TRIP



Yesterday I got back from one of my tobacco buying road trips to Belgium. I guess there is no point in trying to avoid the fact that the whole exercise is proof positive of what a craven addict I am. Guilty as charged. Only a hopeless addict would drive for 28 hours and 900 miles to buy their drug of choice.
The maths of my trip are both eye opening and compelling. In my humble opinion, the maths shine a pretty unforgiving light on the ongoing idiocy of our government. I’ll start with the costs. £70 fuel, £50 for the tunnel and £25 on caffeine. Change out of £150. Then I spent £700 on 200 packs of fine Virginian tobacco.
Grand total - £850.
The same fine Virginian tobacco retails at £18.50 a pack in Tesco. 200 packs would weigh in at an eye watering  £3700.
So my 28 hour odyssey saved me just shy of £3000.
Ludicrous, right?
Belgium is a fair hike from Dumfries. A 28 hour hike to be precise. But it isn't much of a hike for anyone living in the South East of England. For them the round trip could be completed in five or six hours and Tesco charge the same for fine Virginian tobacco in London as they do up here. I haven’t paid a penny of either tax nor duty for my chronic 50 a day addiction for about eight years now and I haven’t broken any laws. Free trade in the EU and all that. I guess the Belgium Treasury must have gained to the tune of £400 or so from my cross border raid. How much have the governments of Belgium, Spain and the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg had off me over the years? Must be getting on for £4000. And how much has HM Treasury in London had?
Zip.
Pretty smart. There are 15 million people living and breathing in the South East of England and the stats suggest that 3 million of them smoke. How many chose to take the same option as I choose to take? It must be an absolute shed load. And how much money do the Belgians take laughingly all the way to the bank?
Enough to make you want to smash up your office, right George?
But hey. It’s not all about the money, right? Our heroic and determined leaders care so much about our well being that they are willing to fore go all of that lovely tax to make sure that we all stay fit and healthy and well.
Because by hammering smokers they make sure that we are driven from our addictions by the sheer weight of the cost.
So this is why Belgium is absolutely swamped with smokers whilst the United Kingdom is fast becoming a smoke free zone. Well it is, isn’t it? It has to be. Surely!
What percentage of the adult population of Belgium are smokers?
20%
What percentage of the adult population of the UK are smokers.
20%
So much for that then.
The real picture will no doubt be a whole lot worse. I guess the 20% UK figure is based on the smokers who are being ripped blind by buying fags from Tesco. What of the ones like me who appear nowhere on the ledger books of HM Treasury? And of course I am one of the lucky ones who has a car to make the drive to Belgium. Many who are not so lucky buy their fags from some bloke down the pub for £4 a pack. These tend to come into the country care of the Russian Mafia and have about 200 times as much lead in them as regular, legally manufactured fags.
So we drive smokers away from a relatively safe licensed product to East European toxic moonshine which will probably send them down the same road as Alexander Litvinenko.
Whichever way you dress it up, the whole thing is utter idiocy. But of course political correctness will win the day just like it always wins the day.
There is nothing quite like a long night drive to allow the mind to wander. I always download a talking book to kill the miles. This time it was John Le Carre’s Cold war classic, ‘The Russia House’. Michael Jayston is the reader who gives a pitch perfect tone to the great man’s crafted melancholy. As the moonlit miles of the A1 slipped away into the night I was filled with the emotion that always fills me when I slide into the world according to Le Carre – what would I give to be able to write like that!
Dream on Frankland
I hit the M25 at a time of night when the traffic was heavy rather than hellish. The hugeness of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge filled the night and the view from the top was something to behold. Usually the southern end of the bridge means a ten minute queue to the toll booths, but not this time. They don’t do toll booths any more. Toll booths need living breathing human beings and living breathing human beings tend to want a wage packet at the end of the week. Well there is no more of that nonsense at the Dartford Crossing. Instead great big signs let you know that you need to look up ‘Dart Charge’ online and pay up by midnight the next day.
Or else.
The joys of the modern world. Kind of sad.
Sleep snatched on service station car park. A quiet 3 am train through the tunnel. Empty French roads under a star filled sky.
Tobacco bought and stowed away. Back to Calais as the world lit itself up with glowing winter brilliance.
By now the roads were busy with rumbling trucks from all corners of the EU. And as the signs to Calais counted down there were clusters of Africans by the roadside watching the traffic with blank expressions. Their faces were half hidden under their hooded tops. I was cold enough grabbing a couple of hours kip in my car with the engine idling. How cold must those lads have been having shivered away the long cold January night in their makeshift shanty towns. So these were the Farage people in the goose pimpled flesh. Thousands of miles from their tropical homes and frozen to the marrow.
We’re all supposed to hate them, right?
Sorry Nigel, can’t oblige you on that one. From where I was sitting on the inside lane on the wrong side of the road the whole thing just looked plain bloody tragic.
The Terminal. The border. And things were different this time. Well of course they were because just a few days ago three maniacs went on a Parisian killing spree. The French were making sure that all travelers realised that the Elysee Palace was taking the terrorist threat seriously.
So there were a bunch of young soldiers armed to the teeth watching the queue to the immigration barrier. What were their orders? What were they waiting for? They had enough firepower to turn every car in the queue into a colander. Like the Africans outside the razor wire, the soldiers looked frozen to the bone.
Beyond the barrier there are more new guys, in overalls this time. They each wielded some kind of handheld contraption which they ran over the door handle and the steering wheel. Hard eyes and a voice like Inspector Clouseau.
“We test for the explosive. Merci.”
And for the umpteenth time, I think that if I was a terrorist I would avoid any transport terminus like the very plague. Hang on a sec. For the last seven years that is exactly what they HAVE done. Not that the Governments of the West seem to care. When in doubt, send a bunch of soldiers to the nearest bus station and tell them to make sure they are ‘armed for bear’.
Sometimes the British customs guys pull me up and give me a hard time for the amount of tobacco I have on board. I show them a few of my books and explain that most writers smoke like chimneys. It has always been enough so far. But this time their minds are clearly elsewhere. 50 gram packs of fine Virginian tobacco are not any kind of clear and present danger. All resources are now deployed against the dual threats of crazy Jihadi guys with long beards and freezing cold African guys with chattering teeth and hooded tops.
Is it all sad, tragic or idiotic? Or maybe a mix of all three? And all the while the words of Le Carre roll into my ears and take me three decades back to the threats of times gone by. The button pressed. The ICBM’s easing up and out of their subterranean lairs. And a lousy four minutes to get your affairs into order. And then the end of everything.
I’ll take mad guys with long beards and African guys in hooded tops any day of the week.
Back on the home soil of Fortress Britain and 400 miles to drive. More warnings to settle my ‘Dart Charge’, this time for the use of the tunnel. And once again the M25 is surprisingly kind. The flags of St George that adorn Nigel’s Essex heartlands hang limp.
200 miles of the A1. I used to be up and down this road all the time thirty five years ago. Magdalene College to Anfield to watch Dalglish, Souness and Rush in the days when they strode Europe like giants. The same road, but at the same time a very different road.
The vast fields either side still promise a coming summer of wheat and barley. But other things have changed utterly. Old pubs which fed and watered travelers for hundreds of years are now boarded and closed. It is the same story for the Little Chefs and the family run garages. Once fine hostelries have been tackily re-branded to advertise the cheap and the cheerful.
Thirty five years of progress and the place is starting to look like the countries of the Eastern Bloc once upon a time used to look. Faded and peeling and gaudy.
Sad and borderline tragic.
It kind of made me wonder why the cold African lads in the hooded tops were so desperate to break and enter their way into such a fading British dream. Maybe you'd be better looking elsewhere lads. This place ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.
Sad.  

Sunday, February 1, 2015

FORGOTTEN FALLOUT FROM FORGOTTEN WARS




So here’s a pop quiz question. There’s no definitive answer. We are residing in the world of subjective here. Let’s go. Where are the very worst few square yards on planet earth? Where would you go to find the very bottom storey of Hell’s basement? My nomination would be a place I have never been. It is a place I would never want to go near. And when all is said and done, who in their right mind would want to go anywhere near the children’s cancer ward in Fallujah? I Googled 'Fallujah Cancer Kids' to find the image above. It is a horrible, horrible picture. But I promise you it is as nothing compared to many of the images of that particular page. The simple word 'horror' doesn't begin to cover it.
Fallujah was front and centre of the rolling news a decade ago. The good folk of the United States were being asked to give GW Bush another four years and he was running hard on the ticket of being the toughest sheriff in town. Dubya claimed to be the man who had put the bad guys from 9/11 right back in their box. But the bad boys of Fallujah were anything but back in their box. They were getting right into Uncle Sam’s face. They were irksome. They were embarrassing.
They needed an ASBO and Dubya duly signed off on the paperwork.
The ASBO has the usual cool name. The Yanks always have a cool name primed and ready when they decide to rain the fires of hell down on the bad guys of the day. My personal favourite is ‘Junction City’ from Vietnam, 1965.
The Pentagon moniker for payback in Fallujah was ‘Operation Phantom Fury’
But there wasn’t much of the fury that was unleashed by the Marine Corps that was in any way, shape or form ‘phantom’.
It was very a real fury. There were 50,000 buildings in Fallujah before 'Phantom Fury'. There were 10,000 less when time was called on the operation. We had a walk on role in the form of the Black Watch.
But 'Phantom Fury' wasn’t just about flattening buildings with any old ordinance. The demolition men chose to make Fallujah look like a re-run of Berlin 1945 care of thousands of depleted uranium shells. I have no idea of the science that lies behind using depleted uranium in an artillery shell, but 10,000 flattened buildings suggests that it works pretty well in practice.
So Dubya dished out his lesson and duly got himself re-elected. The war in Iraq raged for another six inconclusive years before the West got fed up with being made to look stupid and we all packed up and left.
And Fallujah? Well Fallujah is now run by the long beards of ISIS. But they are by no means the worst of the fallout from the havoc wreaked by 'Phantom Typhoon'. The invisible legacy of pounding the city with depleted uranium is one of radiation. We drenched Fallujah with radiation and of course radiation is a thing that hangs around much longer than any mediocre President from Texas. Radiation will be with the poor sods who are doomed to live and breathe in Fallujah for the next twenty thousand years or so.
It means that babies are born with truly nightmarish deformities. The Fallujah maternity unit spawns the kind of human beings that Victorian circus owners once upon a time used to sell tickets for the voyeuristic public to gawp at. And babies turn into toddlers and toddlers turn into kids. All twisted and deformed. Human but barely human.
And the children’s cancer ward is full of these desperate aberrations.
It is like a real life version of one of those depictions of Hell that Hieronymus Bosch made his trademark.
Forgotten fallout from a forgotten war.
Last week I had my own contact with the forgotten fallout.
It started with a call from Kevin in HMP Dumfries. We’ve got a veteran with us. On remand. Things aren’t great. Could you come in to see him?
Sure. That is what it says on the First Base Veterans Prohject tin when all is said and done.
So I went. It was one of those January mornings of steel grey cold. Flurries of snow and a wind down from Ice Station Zebra.
You never know what you are going to get when you visit a guy in jail. As they took my phone and keys and checked my face against my driving licence, I had a picture in my mind. An eighteen year old lad on his passing out day at Catterick. A family in their Sunday best. A beaming mum and a granddad bursting with pride. Boots shining like mirrors and endless photos for the family album. And the lad the teachers had once said was never going anywhere had managed against all the odds to arrive. Smart as paint and sworn on the dotted line to do what his Queen required him to do.
But now the photos are faded.
And now the proud albums are at the back of the cupboard.
And now it is a chilled to the bone day and the electronic sliding door is opening and beckoning.
I’ll call him Mark because I am called Mark. I will change lots of details to wrap him in a cloak of anonymity. Let’s face it, he’s got enough shit on his plate right now without me adding to it by making him recognisable.
Kevin fixed too coffees and we waited for Mark to be brought down from the wing. When he came he had the broad six foot two frame of a second row forward and the face of a five year old kid battling through the first week at school.
How was the jail time?
Horrible.
And of course he never in a million years thought he would ever end up here. Like this. With everything just so wall to wall bad.
An empty page ready for notes. A pen and a yearning for the good old days when everyone was allowed to smoke through these kinds of meetings.
A childhood on a Scottish scheme in one of those small towns where they used to do industry. One of those small Scottish towns we now call 'Post-Industrial'. One of those small Scottish towns where youth unemployment never dips below 25%.
Come on Mark. Look at you’se. You’re a big strapping lad. Sign up! Get yourself into uniform. Buy yourself a ticket out of here.
And he did. He flew his pebble dashed nest for a band of brothers called the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
And Iraq.
Basra.
Streets of teeming hate and a remit to keep calm and hold the line. And drink four litres of water a day. And never discharge your weapon unless the rules of engagement have been met to the very letter. And slowly but surely, the threads keeping his brain as his brain should have been started to stretch and snap.
Ten minutes of listening to his softly spoken voice was enough. Sure he was big enough and he had his share of tattoos. But he was one of those gentle giants. His cloth was never going be cut for the seething hate of Basra.
Back home and the nightmares started to kick in. So he went to the medical officer and the medical officer told him to stiffen himself  and man up. I mean, for Christs’s sakes….
You’re a bloody Argyll man…..
And he slowly but surely started to make the wrong moves. He buggered off. Went AWOL. He legged it back home to the familiarity of the GP who had once upon a time seen him for a playground cut leg and an infected throat.
And his GP didn’t tell him to man up. His GP gave him pills to cheer him up and make him sleep.
The army were less than amused. The army wanted none of him. They threatened him with Colchester Military Prison and threw him out.
And all the dreams of that sun kissed afternoon of Catterick pride were consigned to the bin. All that was left was a collection of looping images from the dusty streets of Basras.
And Mark did all the usual things.
He drank way too much.
He got into fights.
He got jobs and lost jobs.
He ran through a list of anti depressants that just seemed to make him ever more depressed.
But his partner stayed with him and children arrived into the world. And the scheme where they lived was a place of feuding and gossip. Anonymous calls to the Social. Anonymous calls to the cops. And neither the social nor the cops liked the look of Mark because they had read all the stuff in the papers. They saw a big guy with Post Traumatic Stress. A headcase. An unexploded bomb. A clear and present danger.
The feuding neighbours soon cottoned on to this and more calls were made to bring out hyped up cops in vans all primed and ready to make like TV cops.
Pressure and pressure and pressure.
And every night sleep threatened a return to Basra.
What dreams may come.....
The walls closed in. Too much empty time. A claustrophobic life. And he couldn’t seem to stop arguing with his partner. And she was a little more angry with him every day. On and on and on and on and on……
He was piano wire taut,
And sometimes she was inches from his face and screaming at his weakness. His uselessness.
Sometimes he ran for the empty hills to sleep out and make a fire and take some comfort from the once familiar discomfort.
But that went against the way his brain had been wired by those clever electricians in Catterick. Because it is no good if a British Soldier runs away in the face of a threat. Where would that get us all? Nowhere. A regular human brain is wired by evolution to tell the legs run like hell if someone starts firing a gun at the head that contains it. We train the brain of an infantry soldier to ignore the common sense of all of those millions of years of evolution. We train the brains of our combat infantry soldiers to react differently. Turn the adrenalin of fear into the adrenalin of howling rage. Maximum aggression.
Attack the threat.
Attack it with all guns blazing.
Attack it with fixed bayonets if all else fails.
And of course a blazing argument with your partner is a threat. A huge threat. No house. No kids. No nothing.
Attack the threat.
Thankfully Mark just about managed to control it. His threats were truly murderous but he never carried them through.
The police were called and kid gloves were nowhere to be found.
There are four times as many incidents of domestic violence in households where one of the partners has seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan than in households where nobody has ever been to a war zone.
The threat gets attacked. We invest tens of thousands of pounds to re-wire the brains of lads from the pebble dash schemes to use the adrenalin of fear to achieve an unthinking rage.
So when the Sarge says charge, they change.
But we refuse to spend a penny when it comes to re-wiring the brain the other way. Back to normal. Back to everyday.
Instead we toss them out onto Civyy St like so much refuse and hope for the best. Only when things don’t turn out for the best are we willing to open up the cheque book. And then it is cops and courts and duty lawyers and remand cells and jail time and social workers and Childrens’ Panels and bail terms.
A few days after I saw him in the jail, the sheriff ignored the pleadings of the Procurator Fiscal and let Mark out on bail. I started out on a long list of nightmares to be sorted. Start at the beginning and take them one at a time. SSAFA for some bedding and furniture. Citizens Advice for help with getting some benefits.
He called me.
There’s a Children Panel. Will you come along. Well it isn’t really my thing, but sure, I’ll come along.
And I went along. 
Another morning of chilling north wind. A high street of boarded up shops. Many more potholes than there used to be.
A government bleak room filled with government people. How much an hour were they all collectively costing? At least £300.
And my word, had they ever produced a lot of paper. Was this why the surrounding hills were so bare of trees?
They had compiled a list of 31 reasons why Mark should be kept from his kids. But the sight of me made everyone as as jumpy as cats. Because it is easy to make up accusations against a family on a scheme when everything is played out behind closed doors. It ain’t so easy when there is a fresh pair of eyes. It ain’t so easy when there is a nuisance factor from that First Base place where they are all too ready to pick up the phone to MSPs and journalists. And all of a sudden they wanted to get rid of as many of the 31 accusations as they could. And all of a sudden everyone wanted to make nice with Mark. And he found it hard to contain his anger at this transformation from them acting out like spiteful teachers into the epitome of a caring state.
They started out with reams of paper describing Mark as some kind of cross between Rambo and a rabid dog. But after half an hour they wanted to tear it up and to kiss and make up. And they were just so very chuffed to bits that he had found some help. And they assured him that they really, really understood how all the nastiness he had been involved in down in good old Basra city must have made things hard for him.
But they didn’t of course.
All they understood was that the big man with the frightened eyes couldn’t be hidden away in a filing cabinet any more. The quick fix option had been taken away by the unspoken threat of politicians and journalists being roped in.
And a tiny piece of forgotten fallout from a war we are trying as hard as we can to forget was suddenly not so easy to forget any more.
I am pretty confident that things will turn out OK for Mark. He is still young and he hasn’t allowed the nightmares to turn him into an addict. He's a good guy. I like to think that in a year’s time he will see getting banged up for a week on remand was the best thing that ever happened to him. Because in the jail was Kevin and Kevin was able to open a door onto some better times.
Let’s hope so.
But if it does, it will be the exception and not the rule.
It won’t be long before we have all but forgotten our adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. There will be new stuff to hold our attention. And what of the hundred and fifty thousand men and women who walked those streets of violence and hate? Well they will also be forgotten. Just like we have forgotten those that once upon a time patrolled the streets of hate off the Lower Falls Rd and the Bogside.
Forgotten fallout from forgotten wars.
    

Friday, January 30, 2015

SO LONG JAMIE, IT WAS A PRIVILEDGE TO BE YOUR FRIEND



Last month my friend Jamie died. Tragically he took his own life. Typing the six words of that particular sentence still seems ridiculous somehow. Tomorrow there will be a memorial to remember Jamie in Kirkudbright. Unfortunately I am not going to be able to make it which saddens me greatly. These words will have to be a poor substitute I guess.
Since September 18th Scotland has become a place of two camps: the ‘Yes’ camp and the ‘No’ camp. They are not Celtic/Rangers style camps. They are certainly not IRA/UDA style camps. But let’s face it, we struggle to get along with each other. It was something I found quite extra-ordinary about the campaign as people I had always got along fine with completely turned and suddenly seemed to want to shout and point. It is a thing that has managed to enter our everyday parlance. You go into a newsagent and the woman behind the counter is a real hard faced harridan who almost throws your change at you. Later when describing the encounter you can save a whole lot of words and effort. All you need to say now is ‘typical ‘No’ voter’ and everyone knows exactly what you mean. Well. So long as they are fellow travelers in the ‘Yes’ camp. I guess those across the divide will speak of us in a similar way.
Jamie was a ‘No’ voter to his toenails. He was one of the very few ‘No’ voters who didn’t feel the need to point a finger at me and shout. Instead we were able to josh each other about being either side of the widening divide. With Jamie, talking about the vote was like talking football with an Everton fan. It was all about taking the Mick with a smile. With most 'No' voting friends and acquaintances, referendum discourse was more akin to a Liverpool/Man Utd exchange of views. If such a discourse from either end of the East Lancs Rd is unfamiliar to you, I can assure you it ain’t pretty. I think Jamie was permanently amused by my fervour for 'Yes'. But when he met my son on the night of the vote he went out of his way to tell Dyonne to try and cheer me up.
In many ways Jamie was the typical ‘No’ voter. He was a land owner who farmed hundreds of acres of drop dead gorgeous Galloway wilderness: a place of rugged hills staring down onto the sparkling waters of the Solway Firth. Kirkcarswell is the kind of place that any Holywood director would choose to film Macbeth or Rob Roy. My favourite line from Shakespeare would find a comfortable roost in on a dark winter’s afternoon at Jamie’s place.
‘Light thickens and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood.’
Sorry Jamie, but I’m going to lay out a few more of your ‘No’ voting credentials. Unbelievably you were eligible for a bus pass, you were seldom out of tweed and let’s face it, you spoke with a pretty posh twang! I think the fact that I am so very comfortable in taking the piss in what is supposed to be a deadly serious document should tell you a lot about the guy I am remembering. The thing is, I remain 100% secure in the knowledge in the fact that wherever you may be now Jamie, there will be a grin on your face. Your trademark grin.
You see Jamie was one of the good guys. One of the best.
No doubt many of my fellow ‘Yes’ travelers will have bridled at the thought of a landowning ‘No’ voter. Well you would be entirely wrong to feel that way. Because Jamie wasn’t a man who wanted to fence in his piece of Scottish paradise. Instead his instincts were to share.
Every year the doors of Kirkcarswell are thrown wide open to everyone and anyone for the three days of the Wickerman Festival. From time to time I have heard locals with trench like chips on their shoulders moaning on and on that the only reason Jamie ran the Wickerman was for money. It never failed to get me riled up and led to some pretty heated exchanges. Running a music festival is right up there with owning a lower league football club as a money making exercise. Had Jamie been interested in nothing more that filling up his bank account, there are about a million ventures which would have been in front of the queue before putting on a music festival. 
Sadly ours is a country where people love nothing more than to judge a person by their accent. Jamie spoke posh so there were many who could never bear to accept that he did what he did for the very best of reasons.
Their loss.
I first got to know him in 2003. The First Base Agency was just a few weeks old and it was already clear that we were not about to be particularly popular with the local powers that be. Let’s just say that opening up a drug and alcohol support centre in Dumfries back then was akin to opening up a Jewish day care centre in Leipzig in 1938. Nobody liked us much and they liked our clients even less. The fact that the two managers were both English and one of them was black didn’t exactly help either. After those first few weeks, it was abundantly clear that the road we had chosen to travel was going to be a rocky one.
And then one sunny day in June my mobile phone rang and Jamie was on the other end of the line. Within seconds I was drawn to the larger than life voice which was filled with all his trademark enthusiasm. He had read my book ‘The Cull’. He had heard about First Base. Would it be OK for him to call in for a chat.
Sure it would.
The next day he bounced in told us all about the very first Wickerman Festival which was about to go down in a few weeks time. Would we like to have a stand? Would we like to be an affiliated charity? Well of course we would. Jamie was the first person who was willing to see beyond the local prejudice and offer us his public backing. Many others have followed over the last twelve years but he was the first.
We will never forget that Jamie.
A couple of years later when our bank account was running on fumes, the postman dropped a letter onto the mat which felt much like sight of the Seventh Cavalry must have once felt to a bunch of wagon train people surrounded by whooping Apaches. Over £1000 have been raised from a dinner dance and somehow Jamie and his wife Patsy had persuaded the organisers to send it along to our unpopular little drugs charity.
We won’t forget that either.
Over the years First Base became accepted and the Wickerman festival grew and grew. In a region where there is less than nothing for young people to do, Jamie’s festival was a shining light in the dreary gloom. Something to look forward to. Something worth counting down the days to.
A few years back we produced a stage version of my book ‘A Christmas Carroll’. We took it round schools and everyone seemed to like it. The cast was pretty rag bag – myself and a bunch of recovering users. Not everyone’s cup of tea, right? I rang Jamie and asked if we could have a tent to put the thing on at the Wickerman? 
Sure we could.
And we did.
And once we had a tent capable of holding 100 people at our disposal it seemed like we should make maximum use of it. So I gave Jamie a call and made my pitch. Young people are completely disengaged from politics, right? 
Right. 
So maybe the Wickerman should do its bit to change that, right? 
A sigh. 
Right. 
So how’s about I give Tommy Sheridan a call and see if he will come along to give it both barrels? You know, let’s fill the tent with a hundred youngsters and let them know what an old fashioned firebrand sounds like. What do you reckon? And of course he said yes. And of course he was more than happy to stump up a couple of free tickets for Tommy and Gail.
It is something of a treasured memory. I recall clearly sitting next to Tommy as he split the air asunder. In front of me was a packed crowd of youngsters with their mouths agape and their glazed eyes registering astonishment at the compelling words that were thundering into their ears.
And there was Jamie with his trademark beaming smile. Only in it for the money? Grow up. Get over it. The fact that Scotland’s most notorious left wing firebrand was doing his stuff to an audience of a hundred local kids in a tent in a field in the middle of nowhere was all down to him.
And that is no little thing.
Every time I spent time with Jamie I would leave feeling better about the world around me. He was one of those very rare people whose enthusiasm was genuinely infectious. In the eighteen years that have passed since we emigrated north from Lancashire I have made very few friends. Jamie was certainly one of those few. And I like to think he would have felt the same way. He leaves a horrible hole. The collective heart of our family goes out to Patsy and Jennie. I wish I could pass on condolences in person tomorrow.
A few years back Jamie commissioned me to write short book to be handed out at the festival. I came up with a story called ‘Bialystok’. Here it is.


People seemed to like it. I wrote Jamie into the story and he absolutely hated it. He tried to get bossy and said that he was commissioning the book and so he had the right to edit himself out of it. I told him to get stuffed and played the stroppy author card. And he stayed in. He got over it!
I re-read the story recently and I was greatly relieved to find that the Jamie in the story was very much the Jamie I knew. I’m glad I told him to bugger off. Ideally I wanted to put ‘Bialystok’ into the Kindle Free section to coincide with the Memorial tomorrow but unfortunately it has already been there during the last 90 days which means it cannot go there again. The cheapest that Amazon are willing to let me sell for is 99p.
So 99p it is.
You can find the link to the book’s page at the bottom of the blog. I hope you have a read.
To wrap up I am going to blag a few words from Pink Floyd where they remember a member of the group who was lost to drugs. They chose remember the good times, times when he shone like a crazy diamond.
Shine on you crazy diamond? Sounds a lot like you Jamie.

‘You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Threatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light.
Shine on you crazy diamond.
Well you wore out your welcome with random precision, rode on the steel breeze.
Come on you raver, you seer of visions, come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine!’

 To download a copy of 'Bialystok' please follow the link below.