The Story of Losing One’s Bearings

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The morning after the wheel-bearing fiasco I woke up early and waited for the grease monkey.  His name was Alan, a thick-set character who, like all mechanics, wasn’t inclined to start with good news.  “Problem is getting the bearings for this model,” he said, gloomily.  But after a nifty phone call he said he could get them by 2.30 and have me back on the road “while 5.”  This was good news, though I knew it would cost me and I’d have to go to the Bank of Podge.  Anyway I hastily planned a day in Bridlington to kill time and write.

After a hearty breakfast in a town centre cafe I enjoyed a five-mile walk down the prom tiddley-om-pom-pom then felt I deserved a pint.  Many years ago Jayne switched on the Christmas lights here and I remembered it well.  I chose the Harbour Tavern where I was delighted to get a pint of bitter for £1.90.  38 bob!  You could’ve knocked me down with a feather.  Cheap round here, I thought.

The bar was quiet at first; just an old couple sipping drinks in complete and bored silence, a retired gent with a good head of hair moaning to his friend about a non-regular who scooped the jackpot on the machine.  “Twice!” he added, more than once.  And a jovial barmaid grumbling to a vaping barfly about her dog; “He’s a little shit,” she said.  And finally the most amazingly hilarious mullet I’ve ever seen.  Oh how I laughed to myself… until I realised I’ve got one!

As the bar filled up I thought I’d chance my arm with one of the locals over a cigarette outside – a retired fisherman called Tom, a wiry old gent with forearms like Popeye, who told me his tale that ended in tragedy.  He’d worked at sea, fishing for cod, haddock, lobster and crab, all his life and his sons followed.  Up at 2 and braving the tides for twelve hours was tough work with never any guarantee of a good catch.  One night a storm brewed and the twenty-foot waves engulfed his coble, causing one of his sons to slip.  Desperately, Tom grabbed his hand but couldn’t hang on, so he watched helplessly as his son slid away and got taken by Neptune.  Bereft, Tom thought he could carry on till retirement, but after a few more trips he realised he’d have to call it a day, too powerful was the trauma.  His remaining sons still fish and every time they go out, Tom can’t sleep, till he knows they’re safely ashore.

I wondered how many matelots have similar tales of woe, and frankly I marvelled at how they do it.  I pictured myself on a boat, slipping and sliding on deck in all weathers, and shuddered, knowing I’m not man enough for it.  Like coal mining it’s one of those jobs people do, as we consumers take their rewards for granted.  I felt ashamed at how many times my computer has crashed and I term it a peril of the job of writing.  As my dad might’ve said, we don’t know we’re born.

To clear my head of sadness I took another brisk walk until Alan called to say the bearings were replaced.  As I headed for the garage, impressed with their turbo performance, I thought all was not so bad.  I was expecting (stupidly) a bill of about thirty quid, then nearly dropped dead to be told it was over three times that!  I think I said the word bollocks out loud, and added it wasn’t so cheap around these parts after all.

One of those things I guess.  At least I had my home back, and my life.  But I still couldn’t help feeling down as I pulled up next to Flamborough Lighthouse.  Yes this time there was a trigger as my head filled with orange and I broke down and wept.

These are the times you feel the loneliest, and that the project is utterly pointless or even impossible to complete.  It wasn’t so much the Ottermobile as me who’d lost his bearings.  But what can you do but carry on?  What can possibly go wrong now?  At least I did find some solace in a kind new friend and fellow-vanner called Trevor from Worksop (more on this next time) but you can’t vent your anger on a new friend, can you?  So I just had to get my head down and forget about the whole thing, cry myself to sleep.

Trouble was, the bloody lighthouse kept flashing!  If they had any consideration for travellers they’d switch it off at night-time.  I managed a chuckle as I thought that one up, but knew that Sailor Tom wouldn’t.

 

Homeless – My Night with a Down-and-out

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York – The Shambles by the Author!

I always knew there’d be a first time for someone to sleep the night with me in my van, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it’d be a bloke.

To give the backstory, just like many other towns and cities, York has a real homeless problem – in recent years it’s seen a rise of 40% of those officially considered to be in that category.  I don’t include myself – my Ottermobile is my home, not in the traditional sense, but it’s a roof over my head with certain amenities so enough for me to call it that.  But yes it’s only one small step away from the streets.

Which is where I met “Tony”.  Normally those you encounter in shop doorways lie in a shambles of bedclothes with a paper cup in front of them, and they’re mutteringly asking if you have any spare change.  But there was something noticeably different about Tony – well-spoken, smart but casual in jeans and anorak, clean-looking, he politely approached me and asked for help.  Though homeless and penniless, there was something in his eyes that made me warm to him.  I knew there was a story but I didn’t want it there and then so I invited him into a nearby cafe and bought him a tea and a bun.  Gratefully he put down his bags and found a table, where I described my project and my own proximity to homelessness.  Hearing this seemed to touch him all the more so I wondered if in return he’d tell me how he came to be here, joking that he didn’t get the comestibles for free.  He laughed and begun his tale, which here I summarise.

Originally from Blackpool, he left school with nothing to write home about and drifted through dead-end jobs and relationships, finishing up in a fairground burger van.  Eventually he managed to save up and get himself to Brussels, where he studied catering with dreams of becoming a restaurateur.  Suddenly he heard from his brother that his parents and Auntie had been killed in a car crash.  Returning home to see to the funeral, he met a guy who’d become his lover.  They settled in Blackpool where he got a job as a waiter while setting up a bistro with his brother, using their small inheritance.

The hikes in rent hit him hard and he eventually lost the business, and when his boyfriend deserted him and he was duped by his brother, he went into financial and mental decline.  Since then he’s drifted around our cities to find work.

It was a story far from unique I supposed, and heartbreaking, but as with Aline (see Land of a Thousand Hills) there was the air of “that’s how it goes” pragmatism – Tony doesn’t feel sorry for himself, though he is at times baffled as to how this happened, how he got here, how rapid was the journey.

But don’t suppose either of us were down in the dumps; Tony was a very funny young man of 30, good-looking, bright, friendly and hopeful; all he wanted, he said, was to get a full-time job, save up and get back to Belgium.

Impressed with his positivity and warmed by his wit, I asked how this is possible when sleeping rough – isn’t it dangerous?  Does he encounter violence etc?  With a shrug Tony said this and other things come with the territory.  He’d been propositioned for sex, which he’d never lower himself to, he’d been attacked over a cup of tea, and he’d been offered drugs though he’s never so much as smoked a spliff.  Sleeping rough is a last resort, he said, he sometimes gets casual work and can afford a hostel, but finding a full-time job is difficult.

I really liked Tony and felt for him, especially when he said he’d slept rough the night before and got drenched; he’d spent his last pennies on getting his clothes laundered.  Though the weather had improved I couldn’t bear the thought of him kipping in a doorway so wondered if he’d prefer a roof over his head, just one night…

So I found myself in a lay-by near Murton, setting up stealth-camp.  Knowing he was hungry, as was I, I vowed to rustle something up, explaining I love cooking for people and don’t get the chance nowadays.  He was the chef and I was the novice but with meagre provisions I managed to make a meal which he seemed to enjoy.  Beggars can’t be choosers, he said!  There was no wine to go with the dish, but we didn’t need it because we were laughing like drains at how bizarre all this was; total strangers, sharing food, sharing jokes, playing Ludo (!) and bonding in ludicrous adversity.

Though the Ottermobile claims to be a two-berth it’s a tight squeeze, but I managed the awkward and funny manoeuvre of the seats to bed down – not before I’d declared some ground-rules:

No farting

No breakfast

In the morning he must be gone before I do my ablutions, and

No funny business.

Responding in order, he said he doesn’t fart, he’d get breakfast elsewhere, he’d no desire to see me “ablute” and as for funny business he wouldn’t touch me with a fucking barge-pole.  I said I felt a mixture of amusement, offence and comfort from that peroration.  Tony laughed, telling me I was a lovely bloke, if a bit mad, he’d had a great time and I’m crap at Ludo.

Next morning, after a quiet night’s kip he made a sharp exit as promised, with a quip that I could now shit in peace.  He also took my number and promised to stay in touch.  Whether that will happen I very much doubt, but that doesn’t matter.  He was a fine young man; he was good company, he made me laugh, but most importantly he made me think about what’s important.  “We Stand Together” went the mantra after recent terrorist attacks.  What more can we do but help each other through?  We’re human beings and that’s what we do, or most of us.  I’ve always championed the underdog, it’s in my make-up.  If I can help I will, and I wish I could do more.  I’m no saint, God knows, but I like to think and I like to know that whatever happens to me and if I end up in Tony’s shoes, someone will be there to help me.  I’ll think a lot about Tony and marvel at his cheer in dark days, I’ll hope he’ll get back to Brussels, and I’ll forever be saddened at how it got to this.  We all roll the dice I suppose, but only some of us score a six.

Right now though I’m concerned about getting to the Filey coast and up into Scotland.  Time for me, like for everyone, is running out.

Ludo

Don’t Rain on My Parade

At school we used to have “Rainy Day Play” which meant it was pissing down and playtime was spent indoors breathing in other pupils’ farts instead of fresh air.  In truth it didn’t have to be pissing down; the first spot on the window pane had teachers gleefully banning the opening of doors.  It feels like that where I am today as I’m forced to stay inside the Ottermobile.  I’d planned a 10-mile hike but the professor in me saw the rain and vetoed the idea.  So I’m doing a lot of thinking, especially about the reactions to yesterday’s diary entry, which applaud my attempt to add to the growing Social Media noises about depression.  In entries to follow I promise more adventures and to be frivolous again, but as a last word for now on the subject, and to hopefully raise even more awareness, I ask a simple question: Are people with depression unemployable?

Back in 2011 The Guardian ran a piece about whether or not to disclose to your employer that you have a mental illness, a horrible dilemma I outlined in yesterday’s post.  The article cited a couple of examples where the person chose to “out” themselves and found it to be beneficial, but argued in balance that that isn’t universally the case.  So that was six years ago and you’d hope things might’ve improved immensely since then.  But given that 1 in 4 British people per year suffer in some way from depression, stress or anxiety, it worries me that though the issue is now more recognised and taken more seriously, there remains some doubt about whether employers really do “get it.”

This is of course regarding people who are in work, but what about those who find themselves unemployed?  On the positive side, more than 450 employers so far have signed the Time to Change Pledge, but there is a lot more to be done.  The Mind website makes interesting reading with regards to their campaign to lobby the Government with ideas for a more radical and workable back-to-work scheme.  The case studies on the site particularly intrigue me; there are many people in the position I describe – they want to work but find themselves tied up in red tape and Jobcentre bureaucracy, in some cases professional people with excellent skills, qualifications and career histories being advised to attend a course on how to write a CV!  It isn’t the Jobcentre’s fault, they’re merely following guidelines, but it’s time to realise the guidelines are archaic and only serve to make an applicant more demoralised than they were in the first place.  The guidelines can only change when attitudes change.

I think that whether you’re in work or not, one of the difficulties of mental illness in the context I’m discussing, is that it is ‘invisible’.  Whereas a person with flu (for example only) might display symptoms, a person with depression can on the outside look the picture of health.  A person with depression can laugh and joke, so on the surface he or she seems absolutely fine, and it’s therefore no wonder to be fair that people might not notice or understand it.  But on the inside the person is suffering, often privately and spiralling in the way I posited yesterday.

When I was in Bradford recently I visited someone I know well who is undergoing chemotherapy.  We talked about music and lots of things and had some laughs, but we also talked about work, and his employers being supportive.  Which is just as well, he said, because if he lost his job who would employ a man in his mid-fifties with cancer?  I knew what he meant but it shocked me; it was almost like someone saying Who would employ me because I’m non-white, gay, disabled?

In one of my previous jobs in TV I was responsible for finding new talent and addressing the issue of diversity.  It’s a difficult job but I’m pleased to say I had some success.  But we can always and should always do more to open doors for the broadest cross-section of society.  We can do more for ethnicity, we can do more for those with disabilities, and given that statistically 25% of society has mental illness, we can do more for that section too.

I’ve made thousands of bad calls in my life but one of the worst was not putting by for a rainy day.  If I’d known (or in truth been less naive) about how my illness would affect my career, I might not have made that mistake.  But you live and learn eventually.  And though it’s a “rainy day” today I’m going for that walk after all.  I’ve got my van and I’ve got places to see, adventures to find, fun to have and frivolousness to deliver.  Life’s candy and the sun’s a ball of butter.

 

Happy Endings – A Story in Three Parts

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Image by Jayne Bickerton

Part One:

Depression manifests itself in many different ways, depending I suppose who you are and how you’re made up.  Because I do think it’s genealogical; I never got to meet my granddad, but if my mother’s tales were anything to go by, he was an alcoholic.  And though I think the word was never used in those days, depression was what he suffered and died from.  Depression is not easy to describe, but with your blessing I’ll attempt to do so, at least from my own perspective…

Like a human drama serial, this thing comes in episodes.  They’re not time-specific though, they can last for a day, a week, a month…  And each one finishes but you know there’ll be another instalment – as for when, you’re kept in suspense.  I’ve had many episodes in my life, and while they’re always similar in terms of the physical (because it is a physical illness) the mental side can vary – from hopelessness, apathy, despair to the far end of the spectrum, suicidal tendencies or even an attempt to “end it”.

Let me first take the physical side.  The body aches, it doesn’t want to get out of bed, it doesn’t want to be dressed, it refuses to exercise, it’s seized-up, it’s blown a gasket, it’s just conked out.  This I admit is a simplistic portrait, but to me it is that simple; your body has just packed up.

The mental side is far more complex and I repeat, varied.  This won’t make for merry reading but I offer two examples of either end of the spectrum I outlined above.

Part Two:

The first example is triggered by nothing in particular but it can trigger something life-threatening (see my previous diary entry).  You wake up with a strange feeling that the hours are going to be dark.  It takes a while to get up.  You run a bath.  It goes cold because you go back to bed.  You finally get up and let the water out, and you hate the waste of a commodity we in this country take for granted while others are gasping for it.  You run another bath.  But the tank is cold now.  You sit in the freezing water for ages.  Your mind goes orange, you’re feeling nothing except hopelessness… What are you doing here?  Why were you born?  Why have you made your life a mess?  Where are you going?  Why does nobody love you?  Of course you know that people do love you, but that’s how it feels.  It’s not as simple as just feeling sorry for yourself, which is why it’s irritating when people tell people like you to “cheer up” or “get a grip” or “pull yourself together.”  Because the hopelessness makes that impossible, the hopelessness is overpowering and oppressive to common sense.  Some people say it’s like being strait-jacketed and you know what they mean.  But to you it feels like someone’s poured sand in your ear, making your head too heavy to function, blocking the ability to think straight, to appreciate what’s good about your life and the world itself.  So you have to wait till you sleep on the right side and the sand runs out.  But when the days go by and there’s no sign of the sand on your pillow, only tears, the only way of coping is to drink, find some escape, and drink, and drink… and nearly burn yourself to death.

The second example is work-related.  You have a great job, demanding and tiring but great.  You’re doing well, riding high.  Then one morning it goes orange.  Again no particular trigger, just everything turning orange in your head and your body shutting down.  You try to soldier on but the more you do the less you get done.  It’s the curse of the strong – you’re a strong man but you’re losing control, and that’s the worst thing that can happen to someone like you.  It’s time to get help, you know it, from your loved-ones, from your boss, but to ask is to betray your weakness so instead you bottle it up, the dog is mauling you but you conceal the teeth-marks.  The reluctance to show weakness is compounded by the fear that nobody will understand, your boss won’t get it, and the very real fear of losing your job or being “managed out”.  The fear of your talents slipping away or being ignored.  So you neither turn to others nor help yourself, you do yourself no favours which means you turn to drink.  Before you know it you’re on a spiral that only goes downwards and the self-loathing kicks in, you hate yourself so much that the very idea that anybody can love you seems ludicrous, and life itself seems impossible too, so what choice do you have but to weigh up how to do it… a rope, a hose-pipe or walk into the sea?

Part Three:

But there is always another choice, and there’s always the fact you have a responsibility, to yourself and your loved-ones.  If you didn’t turn to them for help, you only have yourself to blame.  It seems incongruous but you’re in a privileged position to be in the abyss, but looking up at the sun or stars.  The sun warms your face, and the stars say you can fight, you can fight both your circumstances and your dog.  Your reason to live is right there.  Your loved-ones, the things in life that give you pleasure.

Your pleasure happens to be travel, so what better way to leave this thing behind?  It’s not running away, it’s running to something new.  It’s not displaying weakness it’s showing you’re in control again.  And finally, you’re not hopeless, you’re full of promise, full of joy and full of knowledge that the fucking dog is no better than you.  You are the master.  And now the master heads for the sun, on his merry way.

The Story of Booze and Depression

IMG_2279So this is Salford Quays, Media City UK, where some time ago I was drunk and nearly burned down an apartment block.

I make it clear that I’m not proud.  I’ve told some people the story and laughed and made them laugh, but it’s time to face the shameful truth.  My eldest brother Podge was a firefighter, proudly decorated and making the papers for heroically saving a little boy’s life…  What have I achieved?  What kind of hero am I?  I’ve never been an aggressive drunk, on the contrary I’ve always been a merry one, but certainly idiotic and irresponsible, decorated in this instance by only shame.  But it’s part of my story and if you’ll bear with me you’ll see the reason for my recounting it.

Not for the first time in my life I was in a bad place, not financially or romantically or geographically – I had work in TV, I had a lovely girlfriend and I lived in a beautiful location – but mentally the location wasn’t so lovely or beautiful.  I loved my apartment and all the chattels I’d built around me.  It was my Sabbath and I set ready for Gillette Soccer Saturday, bent on blowing my mind on a cocktail of football and booze.  Come half-time I was tanked-up.  I’d prepped a curry the night before and all I needed was to heat it up and boil some rice…

Just to put this in some more topical context, Grenfell Tower had cladding which was seemingly the main cause of its devastatingly tragic loss of life (apologies incidentally for jumping the gun in an earlier post and presuming it was terrorism).  The place I lived in on the Quays had no such cladding, but the windows didn’t open.  I don’t mean they were stuck, I mean they were designed that way, I believe because of the dust from the timber yard nextdoor.  In fairness, the lettings agent made me aware of this before I signed, but I was desperate to get a roof over my head and be close to work.  I built my nest and the windows weren’t an issue until my first summer, when I realised just how hot it was, and how even as much as breaking wind brought me out in a sweat.  Some dear people I know still live there and I wonder what they feel about all this post-Grenfell.

… So the curry’s in the oven, the rice is on the boil, and I am on the piss.  Some time later, well past full-time, I was woken by the piercing scream of fire alarms and opened my eyes to see nothing but dense fog.  Still under the influence, it took a few second to realise a) where I was, b) what the din was, and c) that the pan on the hob had burst into flames.  Knowing I had to stay low, I crawled to the sink, reached for the tea-towel, drenched it and threw it over the pan.  Now the flames were doused I became aware of the frantic hammering on my door, the corridor alarms also screaming and voices shouting “what the fuck’s he doing in there!”

Unable to breathe properly, I was forced to evacuate along with all the others, and though there was no fire, the fear among my neighbours was palpable, as was the annoyance of the fire officers who were quick to tell me how much my carelessness and stupidity had cost – in pound sterling if not in loss of lives.

I repeat I don’t record this with any attempt to sensationalise or even entertain, I do so to illustrate what depression and alcohol can do to me if given half the chance.  I diced with death, it could’ve been full-time for me.  I was ashamed.  I am ashamed.  It’s not a good idea to go cold turkey, I have that on good authority, but I can’t use that as an excuse to keep drinking to excess.  It’s a constant battle to be moderate , and that’s another reason why this adventure has helped – getting legless in the privacy of my own home is one thing but when I’m on the road it’s absolutely taboo.  That day taught me a vital lesson and just as when I was at school, I was slow to learn it…  However, yesterday I said I’d find a pub to watch Gillette Soccer Saturday.  I didn’t in the end, and that’s a start.

Of course with no paid work coming in I don’t have the money to indulge so that helps too.  But the most important epiphany for me is that there’s no fun on a vicious circle, no pride on the alcoholic’s ring-road, no use in getting up to get down again.

Coping with mental illness can be achieved in other ways too of course… last night I was lucky enough to get a signal on the Ottermobile and watch Billy Connolly: Portrait of a Lifetime.  Billy Connolly has always been a hero to me – my friend Ash and I once saw him at the Hammersmith Odeon and we laughed until we cried.  The portraits in last night’s show were amazing, but not more so than Connolly’s indomitable stance against his Parkinson’s Disease.  I admire him as ever and can look to him for inspiration.  I can also make it my mission to trek around Scotland and finish up in his home town of Glasgow and see the portraits in the flesh.

The programme had a profound effect on me, not least because it sparked a conversation with my daughter Gabby, finishing with exchanges of “I love you.”  It’s things like this that can make you drunk with happiness, lasting happiness which can’t be found in bottles of quick-fix plonk.  Gabby said it was sad to see Billy so frail and this also impacted on me; I thought I’m a relatively young man, I should be fit and healthy.  I’m still able to walk for miles and miles and not run out of puff, but I must keep it that way.  I must make the fullest use possible of the number of breaths and heartbeats I have left.