Children in Need

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It’s that time again when we’ve just remembered those lost at war and now we’re turning to children in need.  All of which is worthy and wonderful of course but, lest we forget, there are adults in need too.  I can only speak from the heart and personal experience.

This morning I received an email from a job I applied for, saying I’d been unsuccessful on this occasion – one of those letting you down gently fuck offs that from time to time serve up an irritating cocktail of emotions: disappointment, relief and anger.

Taking these in order, the disappointment is obvious because it means yet another kick in the bollocks and yet another month on the streets.  The relief is also palpable because you think to yourself at least I don’t have to wear a suit, fork out for the travel, dance to someone’s tune and lie through my teeth that this is my dream job when in fact any fucking job will do because I’m penniless.  The anger – the most negative and unhelpful of all, yet kind of cathartic and comforting – is that you know you can do the job with your hands tied behind your back, standing on your head and blindfolded like Pudsey, and that you say things like “stick your fucking job up your arse!”

On the subject of anger, I received another rejection last week which began “Dear Mike…” which took super-human effort on my part not to reply as follows: “Thanks for your kind comments about my application and your compliments of my work.  Thanks also for rubbing salt in my wounds.  My name is actually Mark and if you can’t even be bothered to get that right I wouldn’t want to work with tossers like you anyway.”

But I reined back on that because I’m not a bitter man – when I’ve failed I always think I’ve failed because someone else needs to succeed, and jolly well good for them, those are the rules and them’s the breaks.  That’s the kind of man I am.  Magnanimous.  My previous job was to find new talent and I was good at it.  I still get emails from new talent seeking advice on how to find work in television, which I always give, because I’m a professional and a champion and because I’m me.  But the most salient piece of advice I give is “Don’t be me, because it’s shit and the wheels always come off and you end up living in a van and crapping in a bucket.”

So what can you do to stop the rot?  A very heartening phenomenon of the past few months of blogging is that I’ve received so many missives in support of my work.  Comments vary from enjoyable, brilliant, more-ish, addictive, and can’t wait for the next instalment.  Some even say I should do this for a living, which I confess has got me thinking and I even Googled “how to make a living from blogging.”

Among the options, I found, are crowd-funding and advertising.  Regarding the former, I guess I’m already a beneficiary in that I have a crowd of friends, family and loved-ones who’re always there with a meal or a bottle of wine, and to whom I owe a massive debt and if (when) I get a job I’ll be booking tables for them all.  And with regards to advertising, well I guess I’ve helped to sell or place products most of my working life including twenty years or so at ITV.  And in terms of advertising in this blog I suppose I’ve done my share of that too in posts past, either unwittingly or downright brazenly.

Among the products I’ve plugged are Pot Noodle – “Fill the kettle and fill your belly”, Asda tinned chicken curry – “Mmm-more than a mmm-morsel of mmm-munchable mmm-madras”, and North Ridge Hiking Boots – “Kind on your feet, good for your sole and no blisters to heel.”

I’m most proud of that last one, so let’s hope North Ridge are reading!  If they’re not, and this and all else inevitably fails, I have my precious Ottermobile to sell – “A good home needing a good home.”  But then again that would be foolhardy and a desperate measure too far.

So what other ways can I find of stopping the rot to keep going?  Well, there are my few sticks of furniture I mentioned yesterday.  Also, now I come to think of it, I’m sure the box in Bubble’s back bedroom contains the dinky toys and ceramic dogs I used to play with and might be worth thousands.  I’ve seen such things presented on Antiques Roadshow, where ordinary white-knuckled people show priceless family heirlooms and pretend nonchalance about their value and swear blind they’d never part with them whatever their worth.  Perhaps that’s worth a shot.

But to revert back to the Children in Need theme, I managed a chuckle this morning that lifted the gloom I felt on rejection.  What gave rise to my chuckle was this childish memory which I hope you’ll share with me…

I was playing with my dinky toys and arranging my ceramic dogs in alphabetical order from Alsatian to Spotty Dog, and suddenly something stole my attention.  It was my mother watching me, not with pride or maternal affection but with dismay.

“What’s wrong, Mum?” I asked.

“Mike,” she said.

“Mark,” I corrected.

“Ah yes.  Mark, I think it’s time you got rid of those toys.”

“But Mum!”  I cried, “I can’t!  I love them!”

“If you sold them,” she said, “the money would come in handy.  You could buy something useful, like books.”

“I can’t!” I protested, “I hate books!”

“You must,” she insisted.  “All this playing with toys and putting dogs in alphabetical order isn’t good for you.”

“Because you think I’m OCD?” I said.

“No,” she said, “Because you’re 32.”

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In the Event of My Death

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Earlier this year I became homeless and contemplated suicide.

But then things changed.  I took to the road in my Ottermobile, met some amazing people, got told great stories, had many adventures, diced with involuntary death, wrote lots of things, learned who my all-weather friends are, met my grandchildren for the first time, made some self-discoveries, and fell in love.

Yesterday, in the spirit of remembrance I walked eleven miles to my parents’ graves, reading epitaphs and cenotaphs bearing the family name.  All this led to the most profound epiphanic discovery of all – that these people gave their lives to me and I have a lot to live for, so to throw myself off Beachy Head would be to throw it back in their faces.

While losing a job and a home broke me in two, I had many friends and family who were there to glue me back together, and though for months on end it was just me in the van in the middle of nowhere, I was never alone.  So I have a duty to all those wonderful people to see this thing through, and a duty to myself to prove to the fair-weather friends and contortionists that I won’t be giving up.

I won’t for a second pretend it’s easy.  Being a gypsy is tough, just about managing is just about getting through each fucking day.  It’s a battle, not a world war I grant you, nevertheless a battle.

Back in March when I lost my posh apartment in Salford Quays I relied on friends and family to store the few sticks I clung on to, which means everything I own, if it isn’t on the van, is strewn around the country like so:

  • Boxes of books and scripts and things in Jayne’s attic in Yorkshire
  • Dining table and chairs and my beloved plants at Kimbles’ in Salford Quays
  • Wardrobe and African carvings at Dominic’s in Sheffield
  • My best suits in case I get a job in Mandy’s spare room in Nantwich
  • CD’s at Charlie’s in Derby
  • Antique rocking horse (I kid you not) at Emily’s in Preston
  • Not quite sure but I think there’s a box of something in Bubble’s house in Crewe
  • A van that sits gathering moss at Gary and Janet’s in Willaston
  • And finally, somewhere or other, my will

As I’ve said before in these ramblings, all this existential nonsense serves either to make me weep with sorrow or piss my pants with laughter.

Talking of which, last night I chatted unmorbidly with Mandy about the school reunion, and in posing the question “why?” we agreed it’s more than just for fun, it’s really about mortality – we’re doing this because we’re still alive (despite the odds in my case) and thinking really about how much time is there left?  And in these uncertain times when poundland terrorists want to mow us down at Christmas markets because they haven’t even got the guts to wage a proper war (if such a thing exists) it’s good to do nice things and show them we won’t be beat.  We stand together against the enemy, at Christmas markets or anywhere.  And most important of all, making sure we make the most of what we’ve got left.  And even more important than the most important of all, making sure we have a laugh.

So as we were laughing, she asked if I’d made a will, to which I replied yes but my life and death is in boxes all over the country, so I wonder where it is?

“Well,” she laughed, “sounds like it’s either in Jayne’s attic, Dominic’s cellar, Kimbles’ airing cupboard or Bubble’s back bedroom.”

I was naturally tickled by this alliterative summary, then got to seriously thinking it’s such an important document and I must dig it out.  Things have changed.  I’m not ready.  I’ve survived all these months on the road, I’ve laughed in the black dog’s face and I’ve managed to eat on the breadline.  I’ve realised the less I have the more I want to give and the more I want to show the world I’ve more to give.  I will battle on till time, the greatest enemy of them all, takes me.

So as for my will, fuck knows, but whoever’s got it, I just hope I manage to find it before you do!

Remembrance Sunday

On this day of remembrance I’m easily remembering those we should never forget but finding it a real struggle to remember what happened last night.

But before I try to make some sense of all that, I want to say a few words about what was quite an unusual day all-round.  It started off at the doctor’s, where it felt odd to be on a Saturday morning.  Saturdays are made for doing things that make you need to see a doctor, but on another day.  However, there I was, keen but scared to hear if I’m still healthy after six months living on roll-ups, cheap plonk and pot noodle.

But there was no need to be scared; my liver is functioning perfectly (a miracle) my blood pressure fine (incredible) my heart-rate even (even more incredible) and my cholesterol levels ridiculously OK.  There’s a slightly high fat content in my blood, which the doctor put down to drinking and wanted to know how many units I imbibe a week.

“I won’t lie to you,” I said, then lied.

What she said was “That’s still too many,” but what she thought was “Liar.”

“I know,” I said, slightly ashamed.

“It’s something you need to look at,” she said.

“I will,” I promised, “but I probably won’t look at it on a Saturday.”

And she laughed, which as they say is always the best medicine.

To be serious I was delighted with the diagnosis and realised that all these months haven’t taken their toll, that I’m reasonably fit and healthy for my age, and that the Ottermobile conked out before I did.

I wrote the other week about doing some lumberjack work for my friend Gary, but today it was Kay (one of the girls from school) who benefited from my DIY skills.  It’s great to catch up again with Kay, she’s a very kind person and a Grammar School legend, a vital cog of this reunion machine who seems to remember more than anyone else.  She wanted some carpentry doing and when I’d done it she offered money, which I refused to take.

“But you need money,” she said.

“I do but I need friends more,” I said, “I’m doing someone who deserves a favour a favour.”

“Are you sure?” she said.

“Yes,” I said, “just remember me in your will.”

And she laughed, which is always the best remuneration.

After a quick wash and brush-up we were eagerly heading to the pub, which is where I lost my memory.  I think it was a mini school reunion in a boozer called The Bowling Green or something.  There were, I think, ten of us: Mandy, Kay, Julie, Cathy, Sue, Rob, Paul, Kevin, myself (I think) and Iggy popped in.

I remember feeling great to see some old mates again and being impressed that despite so many years draining away, there was so much beauty on show.  The women looked good too.  The beautiful Mandy had baked a cake, Sue came all the way from Amsterdam, Julie and Cathy were funny as I remember.

I recall being delighted to see the lads again too – Paul was a huge friend of mine (after leaving school we worked together [or turned up] at Crewe Works) and Iggy was the life and soul of school lessons – he and I terrorised a good many teachers who lost sleep and eventually lost their minds.  It was his birthday I think and he looked great, not a day over 60.  I asked the barman to get me a candle for the cake and think he could only find a sparkler so we made do with that and sang happy birthday.

After that I think I vaguely remember the pub running out of wine because we’d supped it all.  Then I think we played pool and Iggy was so pissed he couldn’t see his balls.  And I can’t be entirely sure but I think he picked up my jacket at the end of the night and I said “That’s not yours it’s far too expensive.”

And finally, if I remember rightly, with our blood more fattened and heartbeats healthy, we plaited our legs through Nantwich, talking to complete strangers and remembering how good it feels to have friends.

So all in all it must’ve been a great night.  But today, while I’m feeling rough, and remembering those who gave their life for me, I can’t for the life of me remember how I got home.

“Rags to Riches”

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Some money

I didn’t jump off Beachy Head so don’t get excited.  I went up there as promised, reined myself in, then came back and stayed the night here…

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The Grand Hotel Eastbourne – “A Palace by the Sea.”

This was where the ITV story event was held, for over 100 eager delegates.  I might write more on this in subsequent posts, but just to say for now that it was a very successful and enjoyable day.  Not least because I met Ian Kelsey.

I’d always admired this brilliant actor, but that day I learned he’s also a brilliant man, intelligent, interesting, friendly and a damn good laugh.  We had lots in common, notably: a) he once worked on the railways, b) he has a dog and thinks I should get one too, and c) he’s a camper-vanner!

Naturally and genuinely, he was interested in my off-grid life and travels and how I’ve tried to come to terms with a career that’s careered, as it were, over the cliff.  We really hit it off and vowed to keep in touch; he even said that if I’m ever down his way I should call in and he’d run me a bath – he’s not the first to offer me this service and it always makes me chuckle because the inference is that I pong a bit!  I am, after all, one of the great homeless unwashed.

Yet here I was briefly turning rags to riches in palatial surroundings where men in top hats opened doors for me and called me Sir (which makes a pleasant change from “Gyppo”).  And I confess it felt rather odd, and not altogether comfortable, because I couldn’t tip the man who showed me to my room and demonstrated how to switch the lights on; I couldn’t afford to buy myself a nice glass of wine with olives; I couldn’t stretch to anything from the mini-bar, and I couldn’t offer a few shillings to the waiter…

Like actors, writers have their professional ups and downs and I’ve written before about feast versus famine.  So while it’s nice to spend a night in such a beautiful hotel, it’s also a teasing reminder of how wonderfully the feast compares and I couldn’t stop thinking, not for the first time in my life, when am I going to get a few quid again?

On the plus side, being minus money reminded me of a little anecdote I’d like to share with you…

Some twenty-seven years ago, my favourite Uncle Arnold popped in to see my beautiful daughter Gabriel, who’d be five, and gave her some money.

“Put it safe,” said Uncle Arnold, avuncularly.

“I will,” said Gabriel.

“Have you got a money box?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“And does your dad ever put money in it for you?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, “with a knife.”

“Beachy Head (and how to avoid jumping off it)”

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Beachy Head, but I see a Shark’s Head

To continue with the theme of contradiction (see Postcard from a Traveller) here’s a story about my next journey, which isn’t via Ottermobile but is indicative of my eccentric existence over the past 180 days.

I’ve written copiously in these pages about homelessness and poverty and the fruitless search for work and the sickening ignominy of refusal.  But at last I can fill some inches with word of a job, a temporary job, a job for a day, where tomorrow ITV are sending me by train from Nantwich to Eastbourne and there I’ll once again stand onstage sharing storytelling expertise.

I’ll be great at it, I’ll go down a storm as I always do, and it’ll make me me feel ephemeral self-worth, goodness and to boot euphoria.  It sounds arrogant, pompous even, but I don’t care because I just know it, and after all I’m an expert and experts are supposed to know and experts are expert at knowing.

Before the event they’ll put me up in a wedding cake of a hotel a stone’s throw from Beachy Head, in which I’ll digest posh grub, drink expensive wine (if it’s on the house) and sleep in crisp white sheets with my head on huge marsh-mallows.  In my room I’ll make coffee from the kettle I’ll have to keep on the floor because the 6-inch flex won’t reach the socket above the dressing table-cum-writing bureau.

I’ll marvel at the prices in the mini-bar and resist the urge to down the whisky and replenish the bottle with tap water.  I’ll watch TV from my giant bed and channel-hop because I can.  And while I’ll leave the mini-bar shut, I’ll naturally (and with equanimity) nab the toiletries which I’ll reckon are there for the taking.  The trouser-press, however, will be left well alone.  As will The Bible.

After a hearty breakfast, my first in months, I’ll go to work and, as I say, be good at it.  Then, before heading back up North I’ll saunter to Beachy Head.  There, before the rolling tide, I’ll mull over how it went just now, how good I was, how receptive were the guests and how pleased ITV will be with my brief moments in the ambassadorial spotlight.  But I’ll also ask myself some questions:

If I am so good, why am I so bad at managing the black dog and holding down a full-time job?  If I am such an expert know-all, how come I’ve no idea where the next wage will be coming from?  And if I’m so wonderful, how can I only wonder why the hell I’m living in a van?  There will be no answer from the Bible I left behind in the wedding cake, no manual from Neptune, no rhyme or reason from the sea and no explanation from anywhere for the most profound of all – why did I come to Beachy Head?

Some twenty people a year, statistics say, come here to end their days.  In order to stop them there’s a telephone box, a Samaritans sign writ large and surveillance teams on hand.  But of course while all these are worthy and brilliant, I’ll look to myself as I always do for responsibility.

No matter how bad life seems at times, and how powerful the temptation to jump, there’s always something to cling on to.  In my life I have many things: my friends, my family and my loved-ones who’ve been so unfailingly charitable to me over the past long months when I’ve needed them most.  And while I’m standing there with my questions blowing unanswered in the wind, I’ll be remembering them.

I’ll also remember the talents given to me, and that I’m a man on a high from what I’ve just accomplished, for myself and my beloved ITV.  A penniless man with a £500 Mont Blanc pen in my pocket, one of the few things I’ve clung on to as a beacon of wealthier times.  And I’ll see myself as a man deciding positive-thinking is better than jumping, because he’s a man who knows his expertise might come in useful again in the days to follow.

So as for the black dog, he’s the one that’s fed to the sharks.

Postcard from a Traveller – a Story of Contradictions

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The Ottermobile ceiling

Last night when I’d had a few and Thursday was turning Friday I gazed over the iridescent sky of Nantwich and felt happy; it was as near to Saturday as it could be at that moment in time.  A band throbbed the windows of a nearby pub with Hendrix covers and the frontman muffled his appreciation of fans’ feedback.  I smiled at this and celebrated the wonderful pretension of it all and the beauty that is pub life.

Tomorrow I’ll be joining the pub people for a short story of ninety minutes plus stoppages.  I’ll be nursing a pint and soaking up the contradictory world around it…

Tom is in his eighties, frail and diminutive, and he’s walked five miles like he does every Saturday.  Why?  Because he still can at his ripe old age, and because he likes Nantwich and hates Crewe, where he was banned from his local for… getting drunk.  “What do they expect?” he says with a chuckle, not unreasonably and not to anyone in particular.

A fat man holds court while his friends’ feet point away because he’s a know-all who knows nothing of import.

A couple in their forties have just got together and are slagging off respective exes in an attempt to convince each other and themselves that this time it’s the real thing.  Their past relationships are dead but this is for life.

A thirty-something woman with Tourette’s asks every fucking minute what’s the fucking score and who scored the fucking goal as she ticks down towards the final fucking whistle.

A forty-year-old barmaid who’s pretty and pregnant looks pretty pissed-off that she’s pregnant.

A lonely man in his sixties with a comical toupee is watching the match, rolling fags and nipping out every fifteen minutes for a breather.

Before the ref blows for time a 20-something with anachronistic blond streaks ferries in his karaoke gear, bursting with excitement and smug anticipation that later, when the pissed-up “talent” have made fools of themselves and committed musical murder, he’ll hog the microphone and do My Way his way.

An elderly couple who should know better discuss politics, he reading the Mail and she the Mirror-opposite and you wonder how they’ve suffered each other’s pontifications all this time.

A bloke preens and checks his guns before checking his phone, which he loves more than his guns and his gorgeous blonde girlfriend, who isn’t oblivious to the fact that other blokes are eyeing her up and thinking “If she were mine I’d be spending less time at the gym or on my bloody phone.”

A four-strong boredom of men sups lager with a photographic knowledge of the league tables and anything else statistics, including those of the aforementioned blonde.

A woman in her nineties who swears impressively is eating with her daughters and  grand-daughters who’re proud of the fact that she’s still sprightly and is paying the bill.  She bought her house in the forties for fifty quid and now it’s worth nearly half a million and even though they love her, they’re all queuing up for a cut when at last she stops breathing.  They’re products of different decades who haven’t been so careful with their money or their husbands and it makes you wonder which generation got it right.

And finally, in a corner a 53-year-old sits watching the football, monitoring his pint going dry and pinching his eyebrows over the crossword puzzle.  A man of diction and contradiction.  He belongs here and doesn’t.  He loves it here but hates his life at times.  He was born here but doesn’t want to die like this.  He lives in a mobile home that can no longer move.  He’s happy to be alone yet cries out for company of strangers.  And contradictorily, despite it all, he thinks to himself “What a wonderful world.”

Fallon Hard Times

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Oh my God there are two of her!

Poor Michael Fallon, having to resign because of his alleged impropriety.  I say poor, because while I don’t condone his alleged behaviour, he’ll have a very uncertain future, which is something this writer knows a lot about…

Having become unemployed, he’ll be forced out of his posh mansion and use the last of his savings either to find sheltered housing or buy a campervan.  To cover the ignominy of his fall from grace, he’ll say it’s a project and he’ll write about his experiences travelling the land and meeting interesting folk, and he’ll do this until one of three eventualities eventually happen: 1) his van could break down, 2) he could break down, or 3) all his money will run out and he’ll be forced to park up on a friend’s drive and stay put, shitting in a bucket and freezing his balls off.

If he’s lucky he’ll have lots of family and friends who’re kind enough to help, but whether or not this is the case he’ll be forced to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance.  Eventually he’ll get his £74 a week, which is very difficult but not impossible to “Just About Manage” on.  But then, he’ll realise that the insurance on his campervan (£92 a month) will mean on average he’ll be living on £4 a day.  If he smokes, he’ll be forced to give up, if he drinks, he’ll be forced to give that up too.

With no affordable vices (and having given up the alleged vice of groping women’s knees at the dinner table) he’ll become very miserable and, after applying for several jobs in his line and receiving no response, then applying for crap jobs for which he’s overqualified and told he’s been unsuccessful because he’s overqualified, his misery will be exacerbated.  Then, he might learn that his former boss, our Theresa and Christ I do hope there’s only one of her, plans to make it nigh on impossible for people like Michael to qualify for benefits.

The poor man will then face a number of options including: 1) to sell his van and numb the pain with crack, 2) to resort to living on the streets, and 3) to jump off the nearest cliff…

Now as Michael readily admits, he’s erred in the past, but hey, haven’t we all?  So does he really deserve to be punished in the way I’ve described?  Some will say yes he deserves to have his balls frozen off while others will opine that everybody deserves a second chance.

Frankly I think he deserves to have his balls frozen off, not just because he’s an alleged groper but because he’s a fucking Tory.  But then again I might be betraying my naivety here.  For all I know, he might be a very rich man who doesn’t need to buy a clapped-out campervan to put a roof over his head, who doesn’t need to apply for crap jobs for which he’s overqualified, and who doesn’t need to go round the country shitting in a bucket and trying to convince everyone he’s not so bad after all.