The Day I Met Jeff Stelling

jeff

I love my Saturdays, especially in football season.  I buy the Guardian, I get me some nibbles and settle to watch Gillette Soccer Saturday and get drunk.  Once I got so drunk I fell asleep and nearly burnt down an entire apartment block in Salford Quays.  But that’s a diary entry for another once upon a time.

Jeff Stelling is my hero.  Part of me was uncomfortable with buying into Murdoch’s empire but the other part was addicted to Sky Sports’ hyperbole and garish colour.  The addiction to the show, and to the booze for that matter, wasn’t always conducive to relationships but selfishly I indulged knowing that with Jeff the black dog was locked in its kennel at least for the day.  But what will I do now I’m off-grid with no Sky dish or often no TV signal at all?  Nothing for it but to find a pub that’ll show it.

Gillette Soccer Saturday isn’t everyone’s bag (neither is football itself of course) but I can find myself transfixed.  Stelling is a brilliant wit, an intelligent brain and flawless anchorman.  Merse is hilariously malapropistic, Tommo is unfortunately Scouse, Champagne Charlie is cool as fuck and Tiss thinks he’s a saint, but all four are kept in line by the consummate Jeff.

About five years ago I was lucky enough to meet him.  I was working on Coronation Street at Granada (I miss that Quay Street oasis in the heart of Manchester – I had many happy days there) and the bosses offered staff a chance to cross-fertilise ie see what other TV practitioners got up to day-to-day.  I chose to spend a day on Countdown, shadowing a runner.  It was great fun; I got to sit in a contestant’s seat for a rehearsal, I got to play a game (but could only manage a five-letter word, much to my embarrassment and dismay).  And I finally got to meet my hero.  Jeff’s immediately likeable, affable, smart and handsome – he could play Bond… if he were a little taller maybe.  I told him I’d always been a fan and had written requesting a shout on Gillette Soccer Saturday for a throng of avid Stoke City fans – myself, Dom, Charlie and my muckers.  Apologetic, Jeff confessed he can’t always find time to give shouts but promised he’d try that coming weekend.

To my dying day I’ll regret that for some reason (must’ve been something dull and unavoidable like a wedding) I missed the show, so will never know if Jeff was true to his word.  I of course like to think he was.  But in some ways it doesn’t matter – I’d got to press the flesh of a “football legend”.

Talking of making good on promises, my welder showed up!

welder

The best result this Saturday!  Thank God for Steven and Yorkshire Mobile Welding Services!  Here’s a welder I must respect and here’s to getting back on the road to Scotland.  The Otter will soon be mobile again so lock up your rich Scottish widows!

House and Garden

cheshireIt is no fabrication of the truth to say it’s impossible to get a welder in South Yorkshire.

What can you do?  Get your house and money back from Malfords – fuck the libel issue let’s name and shame Halfords – drive and park illegally, have a smoke and keep googling.  What on earth would a desperate man do without his dongle?

I wanted to be back on the road to Scotland by now but this is delaying my progress somewhat.  I’m learning some harsh lessons.  Still, at least I’ve got a roof over my head again, and as you can see my garden is looking good.  I’m writing copiously, knocking up a nice bit of pasta and locking the doors to keep out the black dog.  And yes, despite everything, I’m still smiling.

Camper-vanishes

I am technically homeless.  No, infact I’m really homeless.  So I’m having a moan about the tossers who’re doing my MoT.  I don’t wish to be accused of libel so I won’t name them – let’s just say it rhymes with Malfords and the logo is orange and black.

It’s already taken Malfords six days to tell me the Ottermobile has failed because it wants a bit of welding (like I want “a bit of pointing” according to John Stevenson) and now they’re waiting for someone to come with his tackle because they don’t do welding in-house.

How long this will now take is anyone’s guess so I’ve grumbled to Malfords Customer Services demanding a “tweak intervention” on the price (see Selling and Selling Out).  “Don’t you know this is my house?” I remonstrated, “To you the Ottermobile is just a number but to me it’s a living-room, a bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, office and garden!”  It met with little sympathy so I added “You twats.”

To say a campervanner being minus wheels is an inconvenience is an understatement.  I have places to go, people to see and things I might want to write about!  Oh well, I’ll have to do what most writers do – sit on my arse and try to make something up.

The Land of a Thousand Hills – A Story of Genocide, Love and Human Strength

Rw-map

I’ve come to the point in my novel where I retrace my tentative footsteps through Rwanda and the African Great Lakes Region.  And the story goes like this:

I first saw Aline Aimee when she came to me for a job on the radio soap opera Urunana (Hand in Hand).  She was tall, elegant and beautiful, with the kind of smile that only a Rwandese woman could have.  She spoke Kinyarwandan, English and French.  I wanted to give her a job but the vacancies were filled (I could’ve filled them 100 times over) so with a heavy heart I had to turn her away.

I saw her again in the Ramera Market and she smiled that smile.  I bought her a soda, over which she told me her story – both her mother and father were lured to the Nyamata Church on the outskirts of Kigali, believing they’d find refuge, only to be slain by machete-wielding Hutu Militia (Interahamwe – we kill together).  In hiding back in Kigali, Aline was left to look after her younger siblings and with the help of neighbours she made the long escape to Uganda.

After the war she made the 100-day trek back to her roots, carrying her little brother and sister and everything else she owned… a can for water and the clothes they stood up in.  Taken in once again by kindly neighbours she began to eke out a living by selling cobs of corn at the roadside so she could feed her family and buy herself an education.  Now, her siblings are six and eight and she wants to make sure their future would be better than hers.

Over the coming weeks Aline and I became friends and she like the team on Urunana would call me Mutijima (kind heart).  It transpired she had family in America and she dreamed of travelling to see them.  She also dreamed of saying her goodbyes to her dead parents, so I took her to the church near Bugesera where they rested…

Here, many hundreds of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered and their bones are piled like a skeletal monument to the dead, and their skulls are racked like hundreds of ostrich eggs, many bearing cracks where the machetes and clubs had met their target.  I wanted to stand back and allow Aline to pick over the bones but she took my hand, begging me to go with her.  We entered the church where layer upon layer of bones, clothes, children’s books and other worldly possessions were matted between the pews, and we had no choice but to walk on them.  It felt disrespectful to trample over the dead but Aline said we must, to get to where she needed.  At the altar, a bible lay open and a skull had been carefully placed on top.  Beyond this, in what I supposed was the bombed-out chancel, were the skulls.  I noticed nothing except stillness; no smell of death now, and no sound except for monarch birds tweeting in the eucalyptus trees.  Aline looked over the skulls, tears in her eyes, then reached out and touched one of them.

“C’est mon pere,” she said, “Et a cote de lui c’est ma mere.”

I’ll never know how she knew it was them, or even IF she knew it, but I couldn’t question.  Who could?  She was saying her goodbyes and that was that.  She asked me to touch her parents too, and so I did, running my finger along the crack where the machete had fatally fallen.  This wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead body but it was the first I’d touched; two people I’d never known but I’d never forget.

As Aline then knelt to pray I stood back to leave her in the moment, and choking my own tears I could only write something probably insignificant in the book of condolence – what words are there to amply embrace the horror felt at the sight of such murderous meaningless?

“Merci,” she said, “Merci de m’avoir permis de les voir.”

In the days and weeks that followed, Aline would visit me in the house in Kigali, where my night-guard called Joseph lived up a tree and Gysenge my day-guard tended the garden with his machete.  I hadn’t been able to give her work but I always made sure Aline had food in her belly and something to take home to her brother and sister.  One night I played guitar for her and sang (something to remind her of her family in America I think) and she told me she loved me but I said I couldn’t love her back.  I kissed her on the cheek and tasted her tears.

I visited her too, in her little hut in Ramera, and met her brother and sister.  And one day out of the blue she said,

“Je veux voir l’homme qui a tue mes parents.”  (I want to see the man who killed my parents).

So I took her to Gitarama Prison, a hell-hole where it was said that inmates stood up in their own shit, while ones more privileged for whatever reason would be tasked with making furniture, dressed in pink to tell the world who they were.  As we sat outside the gates, peering in, I wanted to know if Aline was sure.

“Oui je suis sur,” she replied, “Et je suis sur qu’il est le seul.”

As she pointed to one of the prisoners in pink, again I could only take her at face value.  I saw this time she didn’t cry.  There was sadness in her eyes but nothing fell from them.

“How does it make you feel?” I asked.

“Rien,” she said, “Je ne sens rien.  Maintenant je veux aller a la maison.”  She’d seen all she wanted to see.  She’d looked into the eyes of her parents’ killer, and now wanted to go home.

Soon my work in Rwanda was done and I was heading home to Manchester via Paris, eager to be reunited with my own family.

“Thank you Mutijima,” she said, in English this time, “thank you for everything you’ve done for me.  And for everything you’ve done for my country.”

But on the plane I knew I’d done very little.  Yes I’d done my best to create a project to help bring some sustainable stability to a troubled but beautiful country, and yes I was proud of my achievements.  I still am.  But what was this compared to the super-strength of a young orphan forced to mother her baby siblings, and her determination to make a better life after Genocide had taken nearly everything?

Now, more than twenty years on, when the black dog comes barking and I feel sorry for myself, I often think of Aline.  I wonder if she lived?  If she managed to get her siblings into school?  Did she save enough to get to America and reunite with her uncles?  Somehow I think she probably did all those things.  She’d lived through a horror and a sadness I could only imagine, yet I never once saw her feel sorry for herself.  She just got on with life.  I should never forget that.

Camper-vanity

wool exchange

Having been postponed twice, the day has finally arrived for the Ottermobile to have its service and MoT.

When I bought the van I took it to a garage in Bradford to see if they’d weld on an A-frame for the spare wheel.  The man took one look at the bodywork and said “Fuckin’ ‘ell that needs a lot of work!”  I know in Yorkshire they call a spade a fucking shovel – you can always tell a Yorkshireman but you can’t tell him much – but I was more than mildly offended.  This is my house, my first ever vehicle owned outright.  It’s like your kids or your parents; it’s OK for you to criticise them but woe-betide the outsider who dares to do so!

I realise the van is past its best, like I am past mine (the great Coronation Street writer John Stevenson once said of me “he’s a national treasure, he just needs a bit of pointing”) but it goes, and that’s all I need.

Talking of things past their best – Bradford.  Among the beautiful buildings – the picture is of the Wool Exchange and its brilliant Gothic Revivalism – there are plonked a good many carbuncles of 60s ugliness.  This used to be one of the most (if not the most) opulent cities in Britain but I can’t help feeling it needs more than “a bit of pointing” here and there.

Nevertheless, this is where I chose to give the Ottermobile its MoT and I have everything crossed that it will pass – I have wanderlust and need to get back on the road.  And however clapped-out we look from the outside, we’re proud of what we are, me and my beloved home.

A to Z of Stealth-Camping

cattle

As I parked in the Lancaster lay-by with cattle for company I thought about the procedure for stealth-camping.  This might be of use to fellow campervanners, or of interest to the normal people out there.  It’s also my third A to Z and I promise my last… at least for a while.  So, here’s the procedure I go through each night:

A = Am I safe?  This applies equally in a rural or urban setting.  Are there doggers around?  Arseholes peeping their horns?  Kids calling me a paedo?  Or maniacs?  In an urban street this part of the day can be fun because I’m a voyeur, watching the neighbourhood gradually turn in, watching love-affairs going on right under my nose, spying drug-trafficking…

B = Bed.  Fold down the passenger seat to make my bed up.

C = Curtains.  Close one at a time so I can be vigilant (and voyeuristic).  Rear doors first but leave the side doors so I can see my garden.

D = Dark.  Wait for sundown.  This will obviously be sooner in the coming winter months.

E = Earplugs.  If I’m kipping on an A-road the roar of the traffic can be less than conducive.

F = Fag.  There always has to be the last smoke of the day.

G = Gun.  Is it to hand?

H = Hayfever tablets.  If I’m rural I’ll pop a couple of anti-Mr-Beans.

I = Imbibe.  Last glass of something strong then a pint of water (preferably local spring).

J = Jumper.  Take it off and turn it into a pillow.

K = Keys.  Not in the ignition but close by in case of a quick getaway.

L = Lock doors.

M = Make sure I’ve locked doors.  As I’m OCD this will happen more than once!

N = Note how many cars are speeding past and when it starts to go quiet.

O = Off with the trousers.

P = Piss.

Q = Quick shake of the old todger to avoid dribbles.

R = Read.  I always read something while keeping one eye out.  Multi-tasking.

S = Sleeping bag.  Get it unfurled and ready for use.

T = Teeth.  Take them out and leave them to soak in Sterident.

U = Undress.

V = Vanity.  Camper-vanity.  Check my underpants for cleanliness.  If I die on the road I don’t want the nurses telling my family that there were skidmarks.

W = Wank.  No, I only put that because I know some of you will expect it because you have filthy minds.  My W is Writing.  I must write every day, whether it’s my novel, the screenplay I’m penning with two VIPs from TV, or this shit.

X = X Y Z of final checks.  A series of questions such as “have I locked the doors?”  If the answer to these is

Y = “Yes” then it’s safe to sleep…

Z = Zzzzzz….  and dream of a rich widow taking me in, or Stoke City winning the FA Cup, or world peace, or a book deal, or at least a better life after all this kipping in fucking lay-bys!

Too Hot to Blog – The Joys of Campervanning

I’ve written loads of notes in my travel diary but they’ll have to wait for me to put them down here in some kind of narrative because it’s too nice to be tapping away on a laptop.  In brief, I’ve been having a sunshine spree on the coast these past few days.  Today I’m heading inland for a bit – and if I get a bit that’ll be nice (credit the late and great Eric Morecambe for that one).

These are the days when I feel happy to be on the road as opposed to sweating in an office.  Oh the joys of campervanning!