The Black Dog

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I was thinking of getting a dog.  This news will come as a shock to many of my friends but to a few it’ll be welcome because they’ve suggested a dog would be company during lonely nights on the Ottermobile.

In the past I’ve written disparagingly on this subject but I think I’ve been clear that it’s dog-owners rather than dogs that get my goat.  So why did I suddenly feel I wanted one?  Because of loneliness?  For company and love?  Because it could chase the black dog away?  I could teach it tricks?  I could train it to go and fetch my newspaper?  Or use it as a prop for the purposes of begging?  All those things perhaps, but it’s a fact that on my travels I’ve met many dogs and they’ve seemed to take a shine to me.

Take Rachel and her little pooch in Filey, which had me happily playing “fetch” for ages and wouldn’t let me rest.  And Gary and Janet’s three mutts in Nantwich, which I’ve become very fond of.  In fact, they go on holiday later this month (Gary and Janet not the dogs) and I’ve offered to look after things in their absence to repay their kindness, and I’m determined to teach them new tricks (the dogs not Gary and Janet).

So I was pondering the pros and cons, the arguments for getting a dog which are many, and the arguments against.  I guess it’s the same with dogs as it is with people.  I’ve met hundreds of people on my journey so far, a great percentage of them very nice, decent, kind, civil and clean.  But there have been some who are complete shits, or not nice, decent, kind, civil or indeed clean.

I’ll provide an example to illustrate my point:  At a campervan park near Alnwick, Northumberland, a fellow campervanner came for a chat.  It was early in the morning and I was pre-shit, shave and shower.  Now I don’t mind being sociable at all, I’m a people-person, but I’d rather be a people-person when I’ve woken up properly and had a decent bowel-movement and a wash.  This man, called Fred, was clearly of the opposite point-of-view, being unshaven, unwashed and bearing morsels of his breakfast in the corner of his mouth.

He asked how long I was staying and I explained I was moving on (once I’d washed) because I actually live on the van and I was heading north to Scotland if the van could make it there.  Suitably impressed, he explained he was just there for two nights with his missus and their dog then would return home to Yarm.

So impressed was he with my story that he wished he could do the same; kick the rat-race into touch and take to the road.  He was a nice enough fella I suppose was Fred, but he was not one to obey the laws of body-space and all the time he spoke he kept spitting, and tiny droplets of spittle kept hitting my face.  Also, there remained the morsel of breakfast which was working its way centre-stage on his lips, where it dangled for it’s dear life like some tiny man on a clifftop.

In my work as a storyteller and a “soap opera expert” I’ve often talked about cliffhangers, and this was a real-life one where I (the audience) was waiting to see what happened to the tiny morsel of breakfast.  This would’ve been fine in the dramatic sense, but for me it was all rather unsettling because I feared that when this thing lost its fight for life it would fly off the lippy clifftop and land on my face with the rest of his spittle.

Typical of my luck, that’s exactly what happened and I was forced to endure the rest of the interminable conversation without wiping it off hence drawing attention to it.  A similar thing had happened back in Redcar where a fellow-homeless campervanner had a bogey hanging off his nose and it eventually fell perilously close to my sandwiches.  Well this was an even worse horror as I traumatised myself over whether to tell my audience something was amiss.

So as this morsel of breakfast rested on my lip after leaving his (a kind of quasi-homosexual kiss) I frankly felt wretched and filthy.  And when at last he returned to his van he was greeted by his smiling wife and gleeful dog, which jumped up at him… and licked his face.

I could forgive dog-lovers like Gary and Janet for thinking me shallow, but I couldn’t help feeling that if Fred’s dog was apt to lick his face, he’d already done so that morning, the thought of which made me feel doubly wretched and filthy.  And when I think back to this, I realise that on the whole I’m not really a doggy person and the reasons against getting a dog just about tip the balance.  So in which case I should stick to my guns, stay dog-less and rely on a human-being for warmth, obedience, company and unconditional love.

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A to Z of Being Down and Out

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Tony Wilkinson – Down And Out, BBC books

I read the news this morning and felt ashamed.  There was I feeling down about unemployment when there were people in Vegas going to enjoy a bit of music and paying the price of their life for it.

I’d planned to write about the anger I feel at being professionally sidelined and abjectly poor, but on discussing the news, Mandy suggested another A to Z (which she enjoys) in which I could offer some less angry, wry and hopefully humorous observations on the plight of the unemployed homeless nomad.  Faithful readers (thank you Trev in Worksop) may remember I promised to kick the A to Z thing into touch, but I bow to popular demand and give you my third alphabetical lexicon of this diary to date:

THE A to Z OF THE DOWN-AND-OUT

– Apology from the system that failed me and their admin error which meant I’ve gone hungry.  Mercifully this was rectified when I signed on this afternoon and I might get my peanuts come tomorrow.

B – Broke.  I fucking hate being broke.  Also Bastards…

– Creditors.  When a man is on his arse, these bastards queue up to rub salt in his haemorrhoids.

D – Dog,  The fucking black thing that renders one unemployable.

E – Endless misery and inability to stand your corner at the bar.

– Friends and family.  Thank God for them.  I’d love to name-check them all but they’re too numerous and too kind – they give me love, food, wine and the will to live.

G – Gratitude.  What you feel for the above.

– Hope.  There has to be this or otherwise go Hungry or Hang yourself.

– Ignominy.

J – Jobseekers’ Allowance.  They should call it Jobseekers’ Weekly Humiliation.  You have to apply for several jobs per week.  I’ve done so and heard Jack-shit…

K – Keep trying, even though you’ve got in touch with contacts in your field (some of whom go back years) and they’ve completely fucking ignored your calls and emails.

L – Lucky bastards and professional fair-weather friends and contortionists.

M – Motherfucking misery.

N – No.  My least-favourite word.

O – Oh no.  My least-favourite phrase.

P – Poverty.

Q – Queuing with cap in hand.

R – Rejection.  A writer or jobseeker’s nightmare.

S – Shit.  It’s what you feel or are made to feel.

– Terrible.  Ditto.

U – Undervalued.  Ditto.

– Vagabond is what you feel you are, because if you’re not careful you begin to smell of baby wipes and shit.

W – Waste.  That’s waste of a talent when others less so are earning thousands and to be frank I wish them Wakeful nights.

X – Xanadu.  There has to be one for us somewhere…

Y – “Yes I have a job for you…” which would help.

– Zero money in the bank but zillions of characters and stories to write about.

So there you are.  Some Anger did come out I’m afraid.  When you’re homeless, jobless and pot-less the “A word” – like the dog – isn’t easy to keep from the door.  Then again, watch the news and you see anger and cruelty at its worst, so perhaps I should just shut my mouth and be grateful for what I have as I travel north again to Manchester and its tantalising wealth.

Liz Dawn Tribute – the story of nearly going on telly

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“No more telly!”

A strange thing happened yesterday – I was invited to appear on ITV’s Granada Reports, which just goes to show you wake up in the morning and never really know what to expect!

The story goes as follows:  I’d written a tribute in this diary to Liz Dawn and the ITV News Editor read it, then emailed to ask me to phone him.  I replied that I’ve got no credit but would be happy to talk so would he call me?  Sure enough, half an hour later the mobile rang and it was he; a nice young fellow who wanted to hear some of my anecdotes about Liz.  I duly obliged and he seemed suitably entertained, at least enough to invite me to appear live on air that night.  I must admit this was hugely flattering, both that he’d read my blog and that he wanted me to go on telly.  He was aware that I’m a homeless traveller and asked was I local enough to get to Manchester, or if not he’d arrange transport for me.  Again I was flattered but I declined his offer.

Later, I told Jayne about this unexpected invitation and she asked why the hell I turned it down.

“You’ve done TV before,” she said, “You’ve done the Southbank Show!”

“Yes,” I said, “and proved I’ve got a face more suited to radio.”

“I know,” she said, “but still.”

“Thanks,” I said.

People say the nicest things.  This reminds me of a time when I was talking to a young lady in Salford Quays who wanted to know why I was single:

“Because I’m fat and ugly,” I explained.

“Rubbish!” she cried, “You’re not fat!”

I often think about this and chuckle to myself.

But I digress.  That wasn’t the only reason I turned down the invitation.  I would’ve been nervous, yes, but also I was tired, my belly was empty, I was unshaven, I’d got no ironed shirts and I just didn’t feel up to it.  But more than anything I would’ve felt a bit of a fraud, appearing under the TV lights recounting happy memories of a brilliant servant to Coronation Street when right now I’m on my arse.  It sounds a bit plaintive, pathetic even, but that’s how it is, that’s how it would’ve felt, I can’t get past it, I just wasn’t up to it.

Also, I would’ve felt like a cheat because the show I’ve always loved is out of reach as I rarely get a signal on the Ottermobile’s TV – in fact I haven’t watched it for a while and I miss it like mad.  But that’s a price you pay for homelessness.

But if I learned anything about yesterday it was that my diary at least gets read, I have an audience, and that felt good.  It also felt good that though I was unable to appear on TV, or even to watch it, I’d paid my respects to Liz and made someone else chuckle as I retold stories I’d written for her, in what I like to think were some golden days of Coronation Street.  I also learned that my phone still rings.

Friends Reunited

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A very good friend getting things in hand

At times like this you realise who your friends are.  That’s real friends not fair-weather.

Yesterday I visited Ash and Bubble, two dear old pals who loyal readers might remember I stayed with before the first leg of my travels all those moons ago.  He’s a painter and she’s an author and one of her books entertained me through some lonely nights on the road.  Ash’s lovely mum Jean cooked a Sunday roast, a rare and delicious treat for the homeless, pot-less nomad.

In the evening, Ash and I met with the usual Sunday crowd: Ralph, Faz, Gary and Pete.  They knew I was broke and bought me beer all night.  I regaled them (or more likely bored them shitless) with tales of my travels, and we laughed and joked and talked of all things from politics to reminiscences to football to sex – or in some cases lack of.  And it was great to be back.

In the rain and with plaited legs, Ash and I trekked back to his place where my Ottermobile waited patiently for me to “stealth-camp” in the drive.  En route, he stopped for a pee and I couldn’t resist taking the snap above, then telling him a stock joke of mine:  One day on the road I was caught short in the woods, so dropped my trousers to do the deed.  Next day I went back and noticed the product of my labour was gone.  I was bemused.  Until the man who owned the house nearby collared me and angrily proclaimed, “Gotcha!  You’re the bastard who took a dump on my tortoise!”

But I return to the point of this diary entry – that of the need of friends when the chips are down.  I’ve been so lucky in the past few months; Jayne has been a pillar of strength, my brothers have rallied, Mandy’s been a wonderful companion, my kids have come knocking and my friends (or most of them!) have put their hands in their pockets.  Without all those people I could possibly have gone under, succumbed to the dog and caved in under abject pressure of poverty.  It’s thanks to them that I am strong, that I am still standing and refusing to go quietly.

Yet like my good friend Ash, I have to get “things” in hand.  I’ve always said that people like me have a responsibility to themselves and others to somehow “bimble” through.  To that end I’m still writing like mad.  I mentioned the script that’s with an agent who’s buying us lunch in Manchester next week – well it’s keeping me going and giving me a shout.  But there’s also my novel that I’ll be peddling too, plus this blog in the hands of a TV director and a stage play that’s nearing completion.  I make no bones that I’m prostituting myself with these revelations, putting myself back in the market-place and unashamedly so.  And I’ve always said that even though I’m on my arse I have my imagination, the ability to tell a story, the yearning for more of the material that stocks the creative larder and finally the hunger for the story fire that’s fed my belly.

As wonderful as it is to have the support of friends, I’m not entirely comfortable with their charity (if that’s the right word) and I absolutely hate being broke.  So I make it my mission, nay my promise, to get back on my feet and repay the unquestioning kindness they’ve offered.

“Carry On Stealth-Camping”

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A Happy Tramp – 120 and still batting

Not the most flattering picture but I couldn’t give a shit, and anyway who does look their best when they’ve had a couple!?  It’s exactly 120 days since I’ve lived on the road and I make that 1/3 of my project completed, so why not raise a glass in celebration?

But while I’m still lucid I want to keep you abreast of developments.  As you already know, I’ve returned to my hometown of Nantwich where I’m planning a school reunion to fill in some vital gaps in my novel… and to fall in love.  The Ottermobile, which is only just about still gasping its way into life, is parked at my friend Gary’s house, and I want to thank him for being so kind – if you like he’s the Alan Bennett to my Mary Shepherd in The Lady in the Van, but I hope I’m not stuck there for fifteen years!  Anyway that’s where I’m laying my hat at the moment and that’s my launch-pad for the next leg of the journey…

The other day I bumped into a great old pal called Alfie, with whom I walked hundreds of miles back in the day, and fished for barbel in the River Severn.  More on him to follow, but we laughed and joked and talked and talked about all things life and all things writing, and at a visit to a cricket match he gave me another real burst of energy and nostalgia.  I recall a time we trekked happily through beautiful Montgomeryshire, so I think that will be my next destination.  I was so disappointed not to reach Edinburgh and Glasgow as planned, but I worry that my clapped-out van won’t get much further, and I certainly don’t have the money to fix it if it breaks down again.

Being forced to sign on was not my plan either, but needs must, and until I get some proper paid work my journeys have to be more local than John O’ Groats or even abroad.  In this business I’ve climbed the dizzy heights and sunk to the shitty lows; that’s how it is and that’s how the cookie crumbles, and as I’ve said before we are all just one small step away, so watch out and get the beers in while the sun shines.

At times like this it would be very easy to allow the dog back in, but with the help of family, friends and loved-ones I’m refusing to open the door and shunning the “orange” from my mind (see booze and depression).  I’m immersed in my writing and I’m determined to rebuild.  The other day I finished a script in collaboration and am happy to say an agent is taking it on.  It’s a start.

In 1990 when I studied for my Masters Degree I was fortunate enough to meet Alan Bennett, who talked about The Lady in the Van and also about the lot of the struggling writer.  “Keep going,” I recall was his advice, and I still intend to heed it.  What else can you do but bat on?  What else can I do but carry on stealth-camping?  Cheers!

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Nantwich v Didsbury – Nantwich Cricket Ground, September 2017

“Stress” – A Story about Eczema, Life and Death

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“I didn’t fucking leave it behind on fucking purpose!”

This is what I woke to on my second day in Saltburn.  A family row involving a man, a woman, his mum, her sister and two screaming babies.

“You’re a fucking dozy sod at times, Steve!”

“Give it a rest, Tracy!  For the last time I didn’t leave it behind on fucking purpose!” Steve stressed, not for the last time.

I could only wonder what it was he’d fucking left behind not on fucking purpose.  His manners?  His short fuse?  One of their babies?  His life?  It turned out to be her sun cream which he’d forgotten to ‘factor’ into their plans.

“You know the sun brings me out in eximmer!” Tracy proclaimed.

Feeling sorry for this beleaguered and balding man of Midlands extraction, I wound down the window and asked if I could help.

“She’s stressed out bless her,” he grumbled, “we’ve had a run of bad luck like.”

“I have some spare sun cream if it’s any good to you,” I said.

“Great tar,” he said, “Here Trace, answer to all your prayers this bloke.”  But she was too busy muttering to her sister about what a gormless twat she’d married, and how the babies’ buggies were fucking impossible to unfold because they were fucking second-hand and fucking knackered.

“A run of bad luck?” I said, “Does she call eczema and forgetting her sun cream a run of bad luck?  Then again if you’ve got dry skin I suppose you don’t want sunburn in Saltburn.”

But the joke fell flat because he added, “I’ve just lost me father.”

I was going to quip that he should go to Missing Persons but reined myself in and said I was sorry for his bereavement.

“Cancer,” he said, “He’d been poorly for ages but you can never prepare for a kick in the bollocks.  This trip’s supposed to give me a bit of a break.  We’re here for three days like.”

“Good idea,” I said, “to help cope with grief.  Bit of sun and quality time with your family.”

“In principal,” he replied, “but we’ve only just got here and she’s getting on me tits.”

Anyway I got chatting to Steve about what it’s like to lose a parent, explaining I’d been there twice.  As he empathised in his lugubrious way he reminded me of an old mate, also from Birmingham, who could have the world at his feet yet complain about it tripping him up.  But lurking somewhere within Steve’s misery was a sense of humour and we finished up having a bit of a laugh, and he even proposed meeting up for a pint that night once he’d got the babies down.  Somewhat doubtful, I agreed, suggesting The Marine across the road.

“Steve!” Tracy snapped, “Are you going to help with this fucking pushchair or not!?”

And with a roll of his eyes my hapless new friend rejoined his family, telling me he’d see me later and thanking me for the sun cream.

“Good bloke you are mate.”

It was really a snatched conversation, but as I took a long clifftop walk, gazing down on the calming sea and Saltburn’s sands, I thought about eczema, life, death, and how unwittingly rich such characters are.  Steve wouldn’t show up for that pint, he would spend time with his family and I think that would be best; in his grief he needed them more than a complete stranger and nomad.  Except that what really made me chuckle is that I felt so sorry for him and his run of bad luck.  Not because he’d lost his father, more because he was married to fucking Tracy.

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“What to Cook What not to Cook”

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I’m feeling very happy today, even despite my growing unkempt white hair and increasing resemblance to Andy Warhol.  I’m happy not least because the number of my followers has risen, so here’s to my “fifteen minutes of fame” in cyberspace.  But really I want to talk about survival, and more specifically survival and diet off-grid.  Yesterday I dipped my toe into romantic fiction in terms of dinner a deux.  I enjoyed getting my feet wet and soaked up the readers’ response, but it got me thinking about how, or more pertinently, what I’ve been eating in order to survive life on the road.

But first I’ll set the table as it were; I’d travelled north from Staithes to Saltburn, where I planned to stealth-camp for at least two nights and catch up on the football.  Ah football, not palatable to everybody but essential to my diet – that beautiful game played by twenty-two professionals and watched by millions of expert consumers and critics.  When I arrived on the prom I was lucky enough to get a place, free of charge, with a fantastic view and a stone’s throw from a pub showing Sky Sports.

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Saltburn Funicular Railway

Saltburn is a lovely little place and I liked the town and the charming way it doesn’t pretend.  In general the people were friendly and well-heeled, and I enjoyed listening to their kind of Geordie-cum-Teesside accent – “the Saltburn Vernacular” if you pardon the pun.  I took a ride on the famous railway, reading up on its history and hydraulic mechanism, then a long walk down the clean sands towards Marske while hoping to make a valuable discovery or find a lucky stripy stone.  But it was a Saturday and I’d worked up a thirst for beer and football, so I trekked back to The Marine pub on the prom.  I had a really nice time there, got talking to the locals (stories to follow in later posts) and drank good beer while watching Stoke beat Arsenal.  What more could a man want, except for a good dinner?  So, what to cook what not to cook (mmm… might work that up into a pitch for ITV)?

I prefer to eat as much fresh food as possible and avoid tins.  But this isn’t always practical or indeed affordable, so I always have a stock of tins, along with dry noodles, rice and pasta.  When I embarked on this journey all those months ago, my friend Kim put together a hamper for me, and I suggested Heinz Big Soups, which I remembered from childhood as living up to their name or “doing what they said on the tin.”

I’m sorry to say though, that today I’m somewhat disappointed; what used to be chunky pieces of chicken and veg are now etiolated morsels of not much… except in a bigger tin.  “Go big or go hungry,” runs the slogan, well frankly I’d rather the latter, or more likely reach for the dry noodles.

As I say, I do as much cooking from fresh as possible and get my five a day, and while I’m no Gordon Ramsay (thank God, the man always looks like he forgot to put the turkey in) I like to think I do OK.  Especially with curries, which are my signature dishes as I learned a while back how to do them properly.  Like my life I like them spicy, so I try to make sure the rack is full.  If not, however, or if I’m stealth-camping somewhere not conducive to a four-ring gas operation, I fall back on a tin.  Which leads me to a valuable discovery I did make…

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This is going to read like a bare-faced plug for the brand but I couldn’t give a shit.  I’m a firm believer in giving credit where it’s due, and with Asda’s Chicken Jalfrezi I find it “suits the palate of the consummate curry lover.”  “At just £1 and enough to serve two, its authentic blend of spices in a rich sauce containing bigger-than-bitesize chunks of chicken, it’s a canful of nutritious value that’ll keep you going all day.”  I should add “not in the toilet sense.”

To make a serious point, even when you’re hard-up, on the road and off the grid, you need to eat as well as possible, and you have to stay strong lest you’re attacked by a couple of fuckwits on Tyneside.  In short, you have to survive.  A camp of vanners marches on its stomach, as it were.  But to make a purely cynical point, if Asda are happy to sponsor this advert for its Chicken Jalfrezi, I’m happy to give it its fifteen minutes of fame or else “go hungry”.

Anyway, if I survive this day I will write up the collection of stories I found in The Marine.  One or two of them are delicious.