Blog the Black Dog


This is “Blog” my black dog, and he’s very well-behaved but oh what a strange world he lives in!

Over the Christmas period I went ‘gongoozling’, as is my wont, along the Shropshire Union Canal, and was reminded of a story my old mate Alfie told me about a man whose job it is to spray dog-shit bright orange.

Apparently, this is a problem down the cut that badly needs addressing.  So along goes your man with his spray-paint and with a deft squirt he turns the brown piles into luminous orange in order to shame the owner who allows his canine to dump inconsiderately where human foot dares to tread.

Alfie will have written at length and brilliantly about this I’m sure, but I borrow it here to illustrate a couple of points, which are a) the world in 2018 is more bonkers than ever, and b) I’ve finally decided after much deliberation that I won’t be getting a dog… or at least a real one.

I’ve recorded my doggy dilemma in previous posts but will add here that the issue of faeces is a major factor in my ultimate decision.  I’ve looked after my friends’ dogs and seen with my own eyes the massive volume of dung the buggers produce and expect a man and his shovel to follow in their malodorous wake.  Given that there’s a man who goes a stage further by painting it orange, I ponder that if I’d done the same, how would my friends feel on returning from holiday to find their considerable garden glowing not with chrysanthemums or primula but with several lines of shit that glowed in the dark like an airport runway?

But returning to the towpath, Alfie explained he’d asked the poo-painter for provenance of his toil and he’d staunchly defended the practice, insisting it’d shamed the owners and he’d seen a 50% reduction in offending turds.

All very well I suppose, but I wonder if an even better deterrent would be to spray the dog-handler himself so every time we ramblers see a man glowing bright orange we could denounce him as the careless sod who lets his dog shit everywhere and we hope he now “faeces up” to his environmental responsibility.

Furthermore, I feel a little sorry for the dogs returning to the scene of their crime and staring in canine bafflement at what’s been produced and wondering what the hell they’ve been fed on!  Cheesy Wotsits could possibly spring to mind if dogs know what Cheesy Wotsits are.  I related this tale to Mandy and a couple of friends at a recent soiree to discuss our imminent school reunion (which I’ll undoubtedly blog about soon) and they were agape, wanting to know how long the poo-painter had been in the job.  “I’m not certain,” I said, “but I think this is his turd year.”

But enough of this nonsense.  I only wanted to say a few words today to repeat a heartfelt message to my readers, all of whom are important to me, that I will continue to blog.  This is partly because I enjoy it so much – the venting of one’s spleen is often an effective way of banishing the dog – and partly because many of you have said how much you’ve missed these pontificating scribblings.  In other words it’s become not just a literary crusade for or against all the things I see in the world, but a response to encouraging noises off.

Yours until the next point of interest or utter bonkersness,

The Otter


Readers’ Digest

Dear reader

I wasn’t going to blog any more but due to popular demand (thank you Bob in Middlesex) I plan to be back very soon.  It’ll be a new angle, not so much geographical travel as a journey through my varied life and the way I see it.

So I’ll see you soon and hopefully you’ll enjoy digesting what I’ll have to say.

Very best and belated new year wishes,

Mark x


Season’s Greetings

Just a very simple message to the very many people who’ve been reading this over the past six months or so.  I give huge thanks for that, and even more for those who’ve been so kind to me in difficult times…

To those who made my birthday so special yesterday, in various ways, I send my love.

To those who’ve kindly offered shelter, you’ll all live long in my heart.

To the hordes who’ve been so warm and encouraging, you’re brilliant.

To all of you I offer my deepest gratitude and best wishes for Christmas.  Let’s hope the world will be a better place in 2018… if there were more people like you it undoubtedly would be.

With love, Mark x



On this particularly cold morning recently I left the Ottermobile and was sitting at the bus stop, where I was joined by a lady wearing a woolly hat and a moustache.  She said I looked “starved to death” and I couldn’t deny it.  She then asked what I was doing and I replied, without irony, that I was waiting for a bus.  I couldn’t deny that either.  Nor could I deny that the pie I was eating contained pork.  The only truth I withheld is that it was stolen.

I was off to sign on.  It’s a fortnightly treat I dread, and even more so nowadays when they’re asking me to broaden my jobsearch and attend courses such as How to Write a CV.  I knew these days would come.  And I knew the days would come when I’d be applying for jobs not in my usual field.  Which is why I haven’t been blogging, because applying for a job is a full-time job.

But on a rare day off from applying for jobs and being turned down and learning how to write a CV, I thought I’d turn to this diary and write a little something there.

I’ve received quite a number of messages asking where I’ve been and if I’m OK.  The vast majority of these are from people who’re genuinely concerned, as opposed to the people wishing to knit at the guillotine.  I’m aware that my recent posts have been less than optimistic, and some caring readers have said I’ve moved them to tears so I should reassure them that despite all the hardship I’m doing alright.  As I said last time, I’m happy and I know it and I really want to show it.

I suppose in a way it’s like a soap opera, where I provide a “hook” that makes my readers desperate to know what happens next.  It’s vitally important that we keep our audience guessing and of course wanting to tune into the next episode, so the “hook” is something that makes soap opera story writers toss and turn at night.  I guess my “hook” is brilliant in that my readers wanted to know whether I survived the recent chill.

Well I did, which to some would be “false jeopardy”.  “False jeopardy”, another soap term, means that we have a character metaphorically dangling from a clifftop (hence the term “cliffhanger” which has now become the “hook”) at the end of an episode, then starting the next episode with his or her immediate rescue.  To “pay this off” so soon would be “false jeopardy” and therefore a let-down to the audience who prefer to see him or her suffer a little longer, or indeed if they don’t care at all, fall to his or her violent death.

The problem with this, I always argued, is that all dramatic jeopardy is false because it’s by definition a drama, a fiction, an episode of make-believe.  In other words, nobody truly believes it’s real, what they care about most is that it’s entertaining and they wouldn’t want story teams to toss and turn at night because they know damned well it’s all false anyway, jeopardy or otherwise.

Real life, of course, isn’t make-believe.  But it does provide all its characters with problems to overcome, wrongs to right and lives to save.  I recently needed saving and, thankfully, my saviour or saviours arrived and gave me shelter.  As I said before, most of my audience will be delighted and relieved to hear this, while others might grumble that it was all “false jeopardy.”  They’d much rather I’d perished because that’s a better story over which to knit a Christmas jumper or a woolly hat.

Anyway, to those who really do care I owe a massive thanks, and I will be writing a heartfelt tribute to them in my final post in the next few days, which is something I want to take my time over because I want to get it right.  I say final because the Ottermobile has been abandoned and it would therefore be “false” to call these writings Adventures from the Ottermobile.

Perversely I think it’s a pity because I’ve enjoyed writing this stuff; I’ve tried to be funny, entertaining, and sometimes I know it’s been silly but it’s always been the truth.  And I always have to write, because that’s what I do, or maybe I’ll get the hang of doing a CV and bag a job in a warehouse instead.  Who knows what’s around the corner?  That’s our “hook”.

But for the sake of my life I should call it a day, hold a gloved hand up and confess that 250 days on a van is quite enough and it’s time to look to my saviours and thaw my frozen bones.  Then next time I’m in the bus shelter and I meet the woman in the woolly hat and moustache, I’ll hopefully tell her I’m going to be OK.

“Suicide” – a Story of Two Worlds Colliding


The library is full of stories but not just in the books.  While I’m having a warm or doing the crossword or writing, I’m also listening.  Today there was a toddlers’ group singing songs like “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.”  Nearer to me, however, there were two men in their sixties whispering hellos.

“How are you?” asked the first.

“Not so good,” said the second, “my Grandson took his own life yesterday.”

The first man said nothing, not because he was being rude but because, though there were millions on the shelves around him, he couldn’t find the right words.

“24,” added the second man.

That’s all I heard, a tragic and tear-jerking blurb that as a writer got me wanting the rest of the story but as a human-being wanting to know what’s wrong with this world the little singing children will grow up with.

As they continued to warble “If you’re happy” I wondered what drove the 24-year-old to suicide, what made a man with the years stretching out in front of him end his days?  What can be done about this awful state of affairs where the suicide rate seemingly continues to rise?  If you read the Office of National Statistics it’s a very grim tale in this regard.  And finally it got me asking grave questions of myself: though I sometimes think I have nothing to live for, is my life really so bad?  And if it isn’t, should I be ashamed of myself for being depressed and writing such downbeat prose over the past six months?

So in sparing a thought and lighting a candle for this young man I never knew and his grieving family I will never know, I should also be grateful for the gifts I do have and the thing I do know; that despite it all I am still happy.  I know it, and I would really like to show it.


Tales of the Riverbank


While the Ottermobile’s been static I’ve been doing a lot of walking, which is supposed to clear the mind.

I’ve rambled along miles of the Shropshire Union Canal and many more of the River Weaver, and still haven’t seen an otter.  I’ve also failed to meet my old friend Alfie, who I hear has been worried about me and hasn’t been able to get hold of me.  He and I used to trek for miles, or fish, on canals and rivers back in the good old days and I know he still likes to take a constitutional for leisure.

My walks are for leisure too, but they’re also to fill the time for I am now the archetypal tramp.  If I’m not seen tramping along the waterways or huddled in a corner of the library for a warm and a nap, I’m to be seen on a bench in the town square, watching the world go by or writing or pretending to do a crossword I’ve already done.

It’s hard not to feel self-conscious at times because though I don’t (I think) look like a vagrant, if I meet someone’s eye it feels like they’re judging me; they see a man on his own whiling away his day, a man with nothing to do, an “idle spectator” of the world.

But that’s not true.  My mind isn’t empty at all, it’s always abuzz with ideas, many of them good ones.  It’s brimming with story and character, it’s still searching for new words and raring to put them down lest someone should be impressed enough to dare to give the author a job.

Talking of new words, one of the friends I made on the road, Trevor, offered me this:

Gongoozle – (v) to idly spectate, especially canal boats and canal activities.

I suppose that given the amount of time I’ve spent on the canals of late, and the miles I’ve covered and the many boats I’ve seen, I am your tramp and gongoozler.  Yet as I say, I don’t idly spectate, I talk as well, I introduce myself to those I encounter, in the search for new friends and more importantly a story.

The other day I came across Harry, a 70-year-old who calls himself a boater.  Hailing from Manchester, he retired from the police force fifteen years ago following the death of his wife.  He sold his house, bought a barge and has lived on the cut ever since, meandering from Audlem to Wrenbury and beyond and back, loving the wildlife and the back of beyond.  He has the biggest garden in England, because his garden is England.  He likes to visit real ale pubs and favours The Wickstead for its goat curry.  He knows everything there is to know about CAMRA pubs and everything there is to know about the ales they have on tap.  Most important of all, his time will run out before his money.

He asked me what I do and I said I’m very similar – I enjoy the freedom of tramping, I deeply love the back of beyond and I have taken very much to gongoozling.  I have often wondered how different life would’ve been had I chosen a clapped-out boat rather than a clapped-out van.  Knowing my luck it would’ve probably sunk.  But unlike him, my money ran out before my life.

“Do you like a pint?” Harry asked.

“Oh yes,” I said.

“You look like you do,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Next time I’m in this neck of the woods I’ll buy you one,” he promised.

“Thanks,” I said again, swapping numbers.  Harry the boater in his green beret keeping the warmth in his head because he’s as bald as the coots that bob in his wake.

And as he chugged away it felt good to make a new friend.  It also felt good to know that Harry isn’t lonely.  I asked what he’ll do for Christmas and he said he’ll be happy to celebrate it by himself – he’ll go to church, he’ll have all the trimmings and he’ll get quietly pissed.

“And will you stay warm?” I asked.

“Oh aye,” he said with a mischievous grin, ” I’ll have me log-burner going and me chestnuts well and truly roasted.”

The Cup of Human Kindness


Today is a very significant day in personal terms which will remain private, but also in the following terms which won’t… For the first time in my life I begged, or at least accepted a charitable cup of coffee, on the grounds of being homeless.

The Nantwich Bookshop and Coffee Lounge has a sign outside saying an anonymous charity has made it possible for one to have a free coffee if one is deserving or needy.  So I went inside to do some writing and ordered an Americano.  When this was down and dried on the inside of the cup, I realised it was time either to pay up and leave or order another cup.

I chose the latter (not the latte) and asked the waitress for replenishment, while plucking up the courage to say the words “I’m homeless.”

It’s tremendously difficult to explain how that felt, but I’ll attempt to do so as honestly as possible, with as much dignity as possible, and as little pathos as possible.

It felt shameful, embarrassing, terrifying and humbling.

The shame is probably obvious for an educated man who not too long ago had a high-up job in TV.

The embarrassment is inevitable, probably for the same reason but also lest someone I knew could be within earshot and think how the mighty fall.

The terror was palpable lest the waitress weighed me up and questioned the validity of my claim – see I think I don’t look homeless, but then again what is a homeless person supposed to look like?  Unwashed?  Scruffy?  Drunk?  I’m none of those things, because though I’m no fixed abode I still have standards which I’ll never let slip.  I suppose many homeless people feel the same.

And finally it was humbling because the lady unquestioningly accepted my plea and proceeded to show great kindness, understanding and respect in quietly waiving the cost of not just the first cup of coffee but also the second.  It warmed my soul and fixed my heart as I explained as a disclaimer that I do have money owed to me but right now I’ve nothing, and I would return as soon as I was able to put some money over the counter or donate to the charitable cause.  She said there was no need, so I left the shop in tears.

Though this was potentially one of the most humiliating moments of my life, the simple act of human kindness made it one of the happiest and most memorable.