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Oh, You Pretty Things

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This author, 1980

Quite out of the blue, this picture was sent to me by an old school friend I haven’t seen for thirty-eight years.  Turns out she’d been reading this nonsense.

It shows a boy who didn’t care, everything was a laugh, he didn’t worry about anything except his girlfriends, his hair and his spots.  His mama and papa wondered what he’d do with his life and he drove them insane with his carelessness.  The Grammar School So-called Careers Advisor said it was either the Railway Works or Rolls Royce or the dole.  He wanted to choose the dole so he could play guitar all day, but was sent to the Works, knowing he couldn’t and wouldn’t serve a life sentence.  Because he knew – or he thought – he was special.

The water pistol he points was soon after confiscated on the grounds of Health & Safety, already gone mad in that New Romantic Age.  Neither he nor the teachers knew that fifteen years on he would have a real gun to his head, held up by Interahamwe Guerrillas on the Rwanda-Congo border.  The pretty thing who drove the teachers insane often wonders if they’d relinquished their petty Grammar discipline and nurtured his latent talent instead of dishing out lines, he might’ve done much better with the years that hastily rolled by.  No he’d never be special but he might’ve done much more.

Oh where and why did all those years go?  And why did the Homo Sapiens outgrow their use?  Sometimes when things are bad, he wouldn’t care if the gun had gone off.

Gone but not Forgotten (a note of thanks)

Just a note to thank the many of you who’ve contacted me over the past couple of months to ask why I haven’t been blogging, and even said you’ve missed the Otter’s tales!  So I thought out of courtesy I should write something to explain my absence.

I’ve been busy working on other things (in other words I found a job at long long last!) and settling in to a new home.  This move was funded in part by the offloading of my beloved Ottermobile, a sale which caused much soul-searching, deliberation and many a tear.  The adventures I had were many and varied, good and bad, but I’ll never regret the project – something I’d wanted to do all my life.  To go on the road and write with freedom was a sheer luxury…

With that in mind, even though I’ve returned to the grid, readers might be glad to hear I’m in the process of buying a replacement campervan (hopefully in better nick this time) and planning another round-trip in the near future!  So though the Ottermobile has gone, I haven’t, and I ask you to remain loyal and patient as I’m sure there’ll be many more adventures and much more nonsense to come to your devices in due course.

If adventure’s in your blood you can’t stop the flow.

All the best and thanks again for reading,

Malc Bickerstaffe x

Time to Talk

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https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/get-involved/time-talk-day-2018

It’s TIME TO TALK DAY and I’m not sure what to say.  I’m feeling ambivalent.  I’m very happy to support the above initiative because it’s vital that we talk.  However, when I began to scribble notes to form this post I began also to realise depression and anger were the principle emotions emanating from the slanted words on the page.

We depressives can only speak subjectively, the illness is in our minds and I am minded to suggest always that it is by definition selfish.  We therefore have a responsibility to ourselves to find ways through the darkest days (which as I’ve said before are in my case and incongruously the colour orange).  But it’s not necessary, or even possible, to achieve this all by ourselves.  We need help, from ourselves, from our loved-ones, and from our employers…

This is a drum I’ve banged many times before on this and other forums and I don’t pretend to want to stop.  Employers.  Do they understand mental illness?  Do they manage it well or do they choose to manage it out?  Would they react in the same way if I had cancer?  Do they struggle with the issue because it’s invisible (a depressive seeing orange can have cheeks the healthy colour of gala apples)?  Or are they suspicious of the illness in case it’s an invention to mask indolence or lack of ability or talent?

I wonder if this is what can give us a bad name?  Any of us could claim to be feeling seriously ill when really we’re just ‘off-colour’, a bit like limping into the doctor’s surgery and claiming we’ve got sciatica then skipping out clutching a note for a week off work.  So in a way I can understand the suspicion, because we can look fine, we can even have a laugh at the watercooler, and we can seemingly be able to do our jobs perfectly well.  But of course we are not perfectly well, we’re seizing up inside and our engines are just conking out – because it really is a physical illness.

So it’s not enough for employers to give superficial valeting.  It’s all very well giving us time off and the offer of a phased return to work, but there should be more responsible understanding of the illness and more constructive and sustainable support.  Again, we have a responsibility here because we should never feel (or be made to feel) our workplace is a charity and we’re seeking preferential treatment or meekly feeling sorry for ourselves.  We should be unembarrassed, proud even, to say we suffer from mental illness and we’ll need careful management if that’s not too much to ask.

With regard to my industry, which has such a voracious appetite and need for story, it always struck me as ironic that the assiduous mining of fiction meant overlooking the real-life stories of some of those at the coalface, who are in fact being crushed by the wheels of industry and savaged by the dog.

When I lost my job I was wretched, homeless and suicidal – the swanky lifestyle I’d been living was at a stroke demolished along with my soul.  But who cared?  And what can you do?  You can choose to walk into the sea or walk on to the next thing.  In my case the next thing was to buy a house on wheels and travel and write about some of the bad things but more importantly some of the good things in my world.  In other words I was taking responsibility, some would say in an extreme way, but I was genuinely testing myself and dreaming that I could travel new avenues and perhaps draw attention to my plight.  And I always knew there was a safety-net in the form of the many friends and family I’m lucky enough to turn to.

And that’s ultimately what I did, and it’s thanks to them too that I could drive to the beach (as I often did) and keep my feet dry.

So while I had misgivings about Time to Talk Day in terms of how it made me feel, I now feel less ambivalent because I’ve done just that – I’ve talked, and in talking I’ve reminded myself of all the good things in the world and all the good people who’ve helped me through, and all the good things about me that have also helped me through.  I’ve needed help and I’ve needed to help myself.  And yes, I’ve needed to talk.  And it’s helped.

A Hair-raising Adventure

Living a nomadic life has many drawbacks, not least of these being the difficulty of finding a decent barber.  A recent experience of mine will I think support this claim.

Combing the streets (no pun intended) of a small town upwards of Manchester, I was pleased to see several barbers almost neighbouring each other, and as I was on a budget I plumped for the cheapest (a dry cut for less than a tenner) and as I was eager to move on, I chose the quietest (only one other client inside).  But as I ventured in, I almost immediately began to regret my decision.

There were two crimpers on duty, one called Trudy, a peroxided Mancunian, the other named Liz, a Bolton brunette with an orange flash to the fringe, who was behind the counter making use of the quiet period by having a very loud conversation with her husband.  I say conversation, let’s call it a row, because that’s indeed what it was, and while I say husband, let’s call him a bastard because that’s indeed what she was calling him.

Now at this point you’d think that while Liz’s issues clearly needed addressing, she might’ve put them on hold to greet a new customer, namely me.  But no, she merely looked me up and down and pointed to a chair to indicate that I should wait, then deftly took her ‘conversation’ into the back.

Here was my chance to leave the shop instead, but part of me wanted to stay, because even though Liz was now ‘offstage’ I could still hear every word.  As could Trudy and her gentleman client, and things were clearly hotting up out there.  So I chose to hang around and listen to a conversation that went something like this:

Liz:  (OFFSTAGE)  You’re a bastard!

Bastard: (UNHEARD) …

Liz: How can you say that when I have proof!?  You bastard!

Bastard: (UNHEARD) …

Liz:  No!  You’re a liar, a fucking liar and a bastard!

And so on and so forth.

Now while all this was beginning to tickle me and I was thinking I’d spent more than a tenner on lesser entertainment, I might be excused for expecting an apology from Trudy for noises off.  So imagine my surprise/horror/delight when Trudy herself began to chip in…

Trudy:  You tell him, Liz!

Liz: (STILL OFFSTAGE)  You’re a bastard!

Trudy: You tell the bastard!

Liz:  You’re a bastard and a shit!

By now the tears were rolling down my cheeks, not just because of these two angry women ganging up on the bastard, but also because of the poor client sitting in his chair terrified he was going to lose an ear or even get decapitated.  The more Trudy chucked in her oar, the more erratic became her scissor-work and the more nervous the poor bloke became.  And then his face turned even greener as she shook with rage while taking a cut-throat razor to the back of his neck…

Trudy:  You tell him, Liz!

Liz: (STILL OFFSTAGE)  When I get home I want you gone!  You’re a bastard and you’re out!  It’s the last straw this time!

And then there came an eerie silence followed at last by the sound of Liz’s nose being blown, while Trudy reached for the mirror to show the client her handiwork.

Trudy:  Will that do you, love?  Or d’you want a bit more off?

Client:  (EAGER TO ESCAPE)  No it’s perfect thank you.

Soon after, Liz returned, tears evaporated, nose blown, lipstick smile re-applied, and ushered me to a chair.  Again this was a point at which I could’ve politely taken my leave, but somehow and ominously I felt duty-bound to do as I was told.  Admittedly I had grave reservations as she fastened the gown around my neck, but admittedly she demonstrated an impressive gear-change of professionalism as she proceeded with the “consultation.”  Admittedly also, my voice trembled a little as I asked for a short back and sides, No2, tapered at the neck.

But the saga didn’t end there, because now the other client had coughed up his eight quid and beat a hasty escape, Trudy was now idle and therefore able to bend Liz’s ear on what precisely the bastard had said in his defence.

Liz:  Denied it all, didn’t he?

Trudy:  What!?  When you’ve had it from the horse’s mouth!?

Liz:  Yea.  Typical of the cowardly bastard.

And so on and so forth, until I plucked up the courage to ask Liz if she’d kindly take a bit  more off the top.  So as Liz duly obliged, she seemed to glean that I was tiring of the performance and finally calmed down.

Liz:  Bet you think it’s a madhouse, this?

Me:  (PERHAPS UNWISELY)  Not at all.  I’ve seen Sweeney Todd and this is a picnic compared to that.

Liz:  You watch a lot of telly then?

Me:  Yes.  It’s my job.

Liz:  So what d’you do?

Me:  (DEFINITELY UNWISELY)  I write soap operas.

Liz:  Never!  Here Trude, he writes soaps!

Trudy:  Yea?  We could give him a story or two!

Me:  You don’t say.

And so on and so forth.  Now while I’ve confessed to reservations and in fact sheer terror of ending up with no hair (or even head) I have to admit that Liz didn’t do a bad job, and I was more than prepared to part with my eight quid.  We’d also had a constructive and intelligent conversation or two about what Liz and Trudy think is wrong with Coronation Street at the moment.

So having been suitably crimped and happily entertained, I offered a two pound tip and as Liz called me “a true gent” I gathered the confidence to offer an opinion of my own.

Me:  True gent, eh?  Unlike your husband.

Liz:  Too right.  I wouldn’t call him a true gent.  Know what I’d call him?

Me:  A bastard?

Liz:  Got it in one.

Me:  I hope you don’t mind me saying, but things aren’t always quite as bad as they seem.

Liz:  They are this time.  He’s gone too far this time.

Me:  (UNABLE TO HELP MYSELF)  May I ask what he did?

Liz:  I don’t even wanna think about it!

And with that the poor girl scuttled into the back, three steps nearer to a breakdown.  I felt terrible, voyeuristic and horribly cruel to be so eager for the story.  And I said as much to Trudy.

Me:  I’m sorry, I think I’ve upset her.  I feel a bit of a bastard now.

Trudy:  Not your fault, love.  You’re not the bastard who shagged his wife’s sister.

“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” – the Story of a School Reunion

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If you’re a depressive, like me, there are loads of things you can do about it.  You can drink the blues away, only for them to come back in spades.  You can mope and feel sorry for yourself, only to make the blues turn ‘orange’.  You can feel that life’s not worth living, only to realise you’re not brave enough to take it away.  Or, you can say it is worth living, let’s look on the bright side of it and let’s be pro-active…

You can join a gym and conjure the magic of endorphins.  You can apply for jobs and tell those in a position to engage that you are there and you’re not going away and you’re interesting and yes, engaging.  You can look at things that are so easily taken for granted – your home if you’re lucky to have one, your talents if you’re blessed, and your nearest and dearest if you pause to consider you’re so much richer for having them.

Or, you can have a school reunion…

Since last September a beautiful woman and I (with the help of a few other special people) have been meeting, discussing, debating, planning and staying awake at night thinking about how nice it would be to meet those we schooled with 38 years ago.  How great it would be to get as many of them as possible in the same room, to see how they’ve done, how they now roll, and indeed how they now look.

So allow me to indulge and embroider the back-story, which for me and this story is vital – it provided some salient and profound “station stops” on my travels both geographical and psychological.  Loyal readers will know that last year was spent for the most part living on the Ottermobile, travelling (or often breaking down in) various parts of the UK.  I enjoyed and endured highs (seeing beautiful scenery and meeting wonderful people to write about) and lows (running out of tobacco and being attacked by a couple of hooded knob-heads).  But during that time a beautiful woman contacted me via Linkedin and we ‘chatted’ a while, not least about our school days together, and one day she suggested it might be a good idea to have a reunion.

So I said yes let’s chat more and gave her my number.  Some weeks later I was heading for North Wales and arranged to call in on her in Cheshire, where I took her out to dinner.  As we drank wine and reminisced, I mentioned the time I asked her out at school and she said “no” and that was the story of my life.  But anyway we of course stayed in touch and the issue of reuniting with our peers, ignited some weeks before, was now beginning to burn.

In the months to follow, with the aforementioned “committee” and social media playing their part, the fire burned ever more brightly and, last Saturday night, 60 or so of us convened for the Nantwich & Acton Grammar School Class of 1980 Reunion.  And what a night!

I realise that many of you readers are not NAGS Alumus but I want to describe some of what happened because for me as a writer it was fascinating, for me as a person it was enormously significant.  Of course there was music and food and lots of booze in a room crammed with people, but the room was also crammed with a great deal of laughter, reminiscence, wit and bantering exchanges of story, and above all love.  The buzz was incredible and the  energy amazing, proving that for those of us in our fifties there is still life, still action, and still the ability to behave like kids.  Inevitably some of us might’ve been nervous at first, or even scared, but these negative emotions soon gave way to joie de vive as we danced the night away and finished up linking arms and belting out Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.  And inevitably, as with every party, there had to be someone whose role in life is to be the class idiot or drunken dad-dancer or dubious town-crier…

For me as a writer I prefer to hide behind a script, but for me as a person I felt bound to say a few words, such was my enthusiasm and drunkenness and propensity to make a bloody fool of myself.  But it was all genuine, all meant, and all-important to say what I truly believed.  Yes I probably spoke too long, more than probably repeated myself, quite possibly tried to be funny and more than definitely slurred my words.  But more than definitely they were genuine.

Talking of which, there has been an entertaining and heartfelt aftermath on social media and to illustrate the point I’d like to borrow the words of one of my school-friends, which I think beautifully sum up how I and many other people now feel…

So here we are. It’s Monday night and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Saturday night. I was scared at first, but then overwhelmed to see everyone, then [I felt] euphoria. Mandy, Mark, Kay and Dave…thank you for a fantastic night, you have no idea how much you have touched me. Ruth, I cannot thank you enough…. you found me when I didn’t know I even existed. So many wonderful people to meet again. I’m so sorry if I didn’t get to speak to you all. I regret not spending more time with those that I did. 48 hours on and I have an overwhelming melancholia because for now I can’t see you all, crazy to learn after 38 years that I miss all of you so much. All that I ask is that we see each other sooner rather than later and that life treats you all well until we next meet. There is a big hole in my life that you all fill and I didn’t realise it until now. I wish you all only the best of life and hope to see you again very soon – D.

I am touched by D’s words, and even more touched to glean that in all the aftermath there are ongoing stories and sub-plots in development, stories and sub-plots that began nearly forty years ago and will unravel for years to come.

As I say, school reunions and the descriptions of such are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I needed to post this because it was such a massive deal to me after such a difficult year and it was great to see that so many people looked so well, behaved so well and have clearly done so well, and that being 54 doesn’t mean there’s nothing left in the tank, nothing left to say and nothing left to do.

So thank you for indulging me because it really did me the world of good.  The year has started well, I’ve been pro-active, I’ve joined the gym, my career does look like it’s being rekindled.  But that isn’t all the story, because I have a confession to make, a sub-plot to bring to the surface…

I had an ulterior motive in giving my number to the beautiful woman, because I wanted to ask her out again.  And this time, after 38 years, the answer was “yes”, and that’s the greatest and happiest reunion of all.  Because this is a story not just about nostalgia, or about celebrating and looking on the bright side of life, it’s actually a tender and profound love-story.