“Suicide” – a Story of Two Worlds Colliding

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

“How are you?” asked the first.

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

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

“24,” added the second man.

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

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

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

 

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“The Trial” – a festive story of desperation and resilience

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Ho ho ho!

Franz Kafka wrote The Trial in 1914 and it was published posthumously in 1925.  For those unfamiliar, it’s about a man arrested for some crime he isn’t aware of and prosecuted by some remote and inaccessible system he doesn’t know of.  My story won’t be as ground-breakingly, heart-breakingly and darkly brilliant, but I cite it because it demonstrates how wonderfully portentous writers like Kafka were, and how horribly accurate were my own premonitions earlier this year about the lives of those just about managing.

My story is about a character called Mike – yes let’s call him that because that’s what someone called him.  For Mike, life is one long trial, and here I’ll tell his tale with some deliberation and respect for his feelings, because he writes a blog and has realised a large percentage of his readers seem to be lawyers, a fact which gives him pleasure and paranoia in equal measure.

***

“Mike is neither sure of the crime he might’ve committed nor why his life has turned upside-down, but he senses deep down that he must’ve erred in some wicked way for it to turn out like this, where life is just one bad thing after another, one trial, one tribulation, after another.  He searches his soul and recalls stealing a pork pie from Tesco when he was seven, and more recently signing an exemption from prescription charges because he was broke and needed anti-depressants, and he wonders if these are the reasons for his downfall and prosecution.  But in his defence and in more cheerful moments he sees himself as no saint nevertheless a decent, caring and honest man…

At this moment in time he’s claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance and has been dutifully and assiduously obeying the rules by applying – but not usually getting – jobs.  Then a number of weeks ago there was a miracle, when he was offered a day’s work.  The company who offered him the work will be nameless (given the legally eagle eyes are on Mike’s blog) but he gratefully accepted its contractual terms.  Honest to the last, he declared this miracle to the Jobseekers people knowing that legally they would dock his Allowance and legally he was bound to accept.  He did this because he is honest and he did this because he believed that while a day’s work wasn’t much, it might beget more work and soon he wouldn’t have to rely on the State and he could pay his taxes.  He also believed in good faith that a fair day’s work would beget a fair day’s pay come the end of the month.

But sometimes mortals like Mike are up against a system he can’t control, can’t challenge and can’t even understand.  And that’s why today he learned his invoice hasn’t for some reason gone through the system and he won’t be paid till the end of December.  Now some would argue that at least Mike will, eventually, be paid, but others would surely wonder how this can happen, how this can happen to a man like Mike who’s desperate and who won’t be receiving his Jobseekers Allowance because he’s been honest and will therefore have to go a whole month, the month where Christmas happens to fall, with nothing.  And there’s seemingly nothing he can do about it.

Again, because he fears the legal eagles are circling, Mike is nervous of having his story told, but decides to let me tell it because he’s nothing to lose and, after all, he’s only telling the truth.  And furthermore he’s feeling not a little paranoid and disappointed (it’s worth adding) that the company is one for which he’s spilled blood, sweat and tears over his working life.  So perhaps one could forgive his paranoia that somebody somewhere within this remote and inaccessible system is testing his limits.

One thing Mike does have is someone he loves.  She talks to him often about life and how it tries us.  He talks to her about depression and how it tries him, how he feels like an elastic band that’s being stretched, how he resists the tension but how sometimes, because he knows something about physics and even more about human feelings, he fears he’s going to snap.  In plain fact an elastic band, like a human being, can only take so much.

Mike knows she and others are there to love and support him, and he also recognises there are people much worse off – people who have nobody, people who live under arches, people who don’t even have a decent sleeping bag, a vehicle, a metal roof over their heads.  He knows it’s going to be harder for them this winter, and understands why they’ll resort to alcohol, drugs and crime.  He understands this because he knows they’ll become desperate.  And he now understands that being honest doesn’t necessarily pay, in fact it doesn’t appear to pay at all.  So what’s the point in avoiding alcohol, drugs and crime?  Why not let alcohol or drugs numb the pain?  Why not pinch a pork pie if you’re starving?  It’s the unlawful law of the homeless and it’s how they’re supposed to behave.

Mike’s done some research on the homeless problem.  He’s read a story about a man who was up for some petty crime and begged to be sent to prison so he’d have warmth and a roof over his head.  But the judge felt that would be too easy for him, so presided that more time on the streets was punishment more befitting; better to have the streets full of homeless people who can be moved on, than prisons bursting their seams with criminals.

And he’s read in the paper recently about people on Universal Credit who’re forced to live on cornflakes and tell their kids there’ll be no Christmas presents this year.  With this in mind, Mike met his beautiful daughter for a coffee and she was paying.  He told her there would be gifts for his grandchildren but they wouldn’t be much.  For that he was banking on the pay that was due for his honest days’ work.  But now, with today’s news upper in his mind, he’s going to have to tell her it will have to wait until the new year.  And it will break his heart.”

***

So that’s the story.  When I interviewed Mike he was at first reticent, scared even, to divulge.  But this was more than paranoia about the legal eagles reading his words – it was about dignity.  He doesn’t feel ashamed of his story and he certainly doesn’t want pity.  Why should he, he says, ask for pity from others when he refuses to pity himself?  All he wants, after some deliberation, is to tell his story, get things off his chest, tell it like it is and that will be that.

Because while Mike might be made of elastic he’s not one easy to snap.  With dignity he’ll go on displaying innate magnanimity, he’ll go on resisting the tension, he’ll go on being resilient, and he’ll go on believing that while he can’t fight the system and can’t understand why this has happened to him, he’ll get over this famine and enjoy any feast that’s put in front of him, come Christmas and beyond.  And yes, ho ho ho, he’ll manage, somehow, to laugh in the face of adversity.

Franz Kafka, arguably, might not have been so forthcoming with happy endings.

“Television’s Hal Owen” – A Grave Tale from a Homeless Writer

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Alas, poor Yorick…

I think I got out of the wrong side of my sleeping bag this morning because this court jester is feeling pretty angry.  However, as it’s Halloween let’s channel that anger and turn it into mirth in writing an account of the horror of depression and homelessness.

In previous diary entries I’ve recorded my thoughts on how employers don’t get depression (to clarify, that means they don’t understand it rather than suffer from it) and to revisit and illustrate that theme I’d like to tell a real-life story…

… Some time ago I had a boss whom I’ll call Hal Owen.  How best to describe him?  Let’s say he was so narcissistic he probably invented the selfie, and so far up his own arse he could take a photo of his bowel.

Anyway I’d been down with the dog and needed time off, a lengthy spell to boot, and my employers were admittedly pretty understanding in then allowing me a phased return to work.  We were in a story conference discussing some tale about frozen pipes that caused a house to flood, and to draw from experience (which is what writers should do) I described a visit to a restaurant whose pipes had burst, meaning the pumps couldn’t serve beer and the bain maries were dry.  To flesh out the story I explained that I’d been so down that my friends had taken me out for a meal to cheer me up.

“Bloody hell!” said Hal, “he’s supposed to be off sick and he’s out gallivanting!”

“Not gallivanting,” I countered, “eating.”

That’s what I said, but what I wanted to say was “Even those with mental illness need to eat, you ignorant, vainglorious prick.”

What stopped me from saying it?  Politeness?  Intelligence?  Job preservation?  Probably a bit of all three, but if it was job preservation I regret not saying it, because in the end I lost my job anyway so it wouldn’t really have made a difference.

… It’s memories like this that make me either boiling with anger or send me into paroxysms of laughter, because the sickest joke of all is that Hal is still working, costing the company tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, sitting at his warm desk and going home to his nice cosy house to don his carpet slippers, put his feet up and chuckle to himself at how easy is his life.

In comparison, I’m sleeping in a mummy bag, waking up for a pee at 3am and dithering uncontrollably, living on £4 a day and waiting for the phone not to ring in answer to applications for jobs I’m over-qualified to do, which I could do with my eyes closed yet those in power shut their ears to my pleas, and my home is a tin can called the Ottermobile which can’t be mobile at all because it needs unaffordable diesel to make its wheels turn round.

I repeat that this will induce either fury or laughter, so because I’m naturally more inclined to the latter, I am not asking for sympathy, I tell the story merely to illustrate a point.  But more importantly on a wider scale, my aim is to posit the lack of awareness that certain persons like Hal Owen in high-up places demonstrate, yet those same people like Hal Owen are prospering merrily and blissfully.  How do they do it?  How do they get there?  Well for a kick-off it’s not always about talent or experience, it’s often pure luck, or that their young faces fit, or that they have an innately impressive art and aptitude for networking.

It pains me at times to see this happening, where those untroubled by talent get on whereas others who’re brimming with it, don’t.  A few nights ago a party of us travelled to North Wales to watch a production of The Wyrd Sisters, a vibrant, witty and brilliant story from the Pratchett muse, vibrantly, wittily and brilliantly directed by an old friend of mine called Martin, who has more ‘life experience’ and more talent in his little finger than a good many I’ve worked with down the years have in their entire bodies.  Unlike me, Martin isn’t bitter, but unlike me, he’s housed and gainfully-employed elsewhere.  But I mention him only because if I had the power to do so I’d hire people like him in my line of work and replace some of the mulch that’s unquestioningly allowed to blow along the windy corridors of power.

In those unnecessarily long, arduous and probably illegal days of dreaming up stories for the nation’s favourite soap for example, people like Hal might offer very little guidance, opinion, experience or even ideas for story and say “Pick the bones out of that,” and expect people like me to weave their magic and turn paucity of idea into rich story pickings for the audience.  Like making a silk purse out of a pig’s ear or, as I prefer to say, turning a pile of shit into the greatest story ever told.  Forgive my own vaingloriousness here, but that very often happened for me because I had magic to weave.  And I still have that magic – while my belly might be empty of food, it’s a fiery cauldron of ideas that bubble and gurgle and fuel my soul.

So to be true to my loved-ones who urge me to see the positives, and to be bent on rekindling the fire beneath the cauldron, I will end this tale with an upbeat message:  as long as he has his talent and self-belief, a writer won’t be homeless for ever.  His career might be dead but it will rise from the other side and laugh like a court jester in the face of ignorance.  Pick the bones out of that, Hal.

The Penalty of Homelessness, Unemployment & Depression

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Yes I hold my hands up it’s a very downbeat title for a post, but I’m afraid it perfectly summarises my mood.  So to begin on a lighter note, I had several kind and positive missives following yesterday’s entry, most of which encouraged me to go against judgement and get myself a canine companion.

But what I didn’t mention in my peroration of the subject was that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to look after myself let alone feed, walk, train and love a dog.

A case in point happened recently when I travelled to Salford Quays to try and drum up some work and stealth-camp in wealthy environs.  My old friend Kim had been saving post that’s still being delivered to my apartment, which I was forced to give up in March.  Among the shit-brown envelopes were two from the NHS, charging me a penalty totalling circa £130 for signing a prescription exemption without due authorisation.

Now let me make it clear that I am guilty as charged because though I was homeless at the time, I was not officially unemployed as I was not then claiming benefit, but only because I’d naively assumed that I wouldn’t be eligible without a fixed abode.  In mitigation, however, and I hope, I was penniless and depressed and badly needed medication.  So what was I to do?  Well to be frank it was get the meds or cower to the black dog.  So I went for the former.

These were dark and ‘orange’ days I’m referring to (and for which I send a bouquet of barbed wire to the dog and some humans by way of thanks) whereas latterly I’d been in a much better place, mentally if not financially.  But then to get this penalty notice it popped the bubble in my spirit-level.

Anyway what can you do?  Well you can write to the creditors and argue your case for the defence.  A good idea except there isn’t an address on the letter, only a number to call or an online form to complete.  With no credit on my mobile, I opted for the online service on which I wrote a lengthy plea…

While pleading guilty to the crime, I testified that I wasn’t at the time and am no longer at the address in Salford Quays, in fact I don’t have an address at all as I am living in my Ottermobile.  Furthermore, at the time of the criminal activity I was desperately depressed and unable to pay the price of a prescription.  It’s unhelpful, I suggested, to receive letters like the above and I would’ve hoped that the medication cited on the prescription might give a signal that all was not well with the defendant.  Admittedly my case is probably buried deep within a computerised system and it would be naive to assume each case is investigated to its fullest, but as I pointed out in my defence, it might not be the best way forward to pursue damages incurred as it’s unlikely I’d be in a position to cough up.

Even further to that, in asking them not to write to the given address in future, I wondered where and how they could find me to take the matter further eg. litigation?  I hereby confess to chuckling ironically at the notion of their manhunt and what might happen if my case for the defence meets with negativity.  Will they send me to prison?  Well, at least I’d have a home, a roof over my head, and they’d know precisely where to send their letters.  Or will they send in the bailiffs?

Well, that makes me chuckle too, because there more than likely isn’t 130 quid’s worth of chattels onboard the Ottermobile to cover my debt to society.  I guess they could take my broken TV, my walking boots and my kitchenware.  If they did, I truly and absolutely wouldn’t have a pot to piss in.

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.

Homeless in Manchester – The Story of Paul and The Big Issue

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The beautiful Royal Exchange Theatre Building

After the meeting at the Royal Exchange we were due to meet my old friends Kim, Kelly, Karl and Wendy for drinks on Salford Quays.  As I left the building and its wonderful salubriousness (it’s one of my favourite theatre buildings) I was approached by a Big Issue seller.  I confess that in days gone by these were a bit of a pain in the arse – it seemed you couldn’t walk 100 yards without being accosted – but given my current plight, my views have radically changed.  So much so, that I really wanted to reach into my pocket but knew I couldn’t, so made my apology.

Neither surprisingly perhaps nor rudely, the seller glanced at my attire (I’d shaved and smartened for our meeting) and said it was fine, if I hadn’t got a few coppers I hadn’t got a few coppers.  But it broke my heart to know that what he was really thinking was “you lying bastard, that’s what they all say.”  So I felt bound to explain that I’d just been to an ‘interview’.

“I might not look it,” I said, “but I’m homeless too.”

“Right,” he said.

“No really,” I insisted, “I live in a van.”

“I live in a tent,” he said.

In lieu of money I rolled him a cigarette and asked for his story.  He was Paul, 45, born, bred and educated in Salford.  He left school with decent qualifications and decided to get a trade in the construction industry.  He was earning good money as a roofer when he met his future wife, so settled down, had three kids, a budgie, a labrador and was very happy.

He’d always played guitar and performed with a good few pub bands down the years, doing classic rock covers.  Being in bands always attracted the girls and perhaps inevitably he had an affair.  His wife found out and chucked him onto the street.  He had no family (his parents both died during the above story) so he dossed on various friends’ settees, yet still ticked along because he always had his work…

Until the day he lost his job.  He managed to get a few temporary contracts in the industry, but then they dried up during the period of austerity.  Feeling depressed, he became “a pain to live with” and increasingly found his friends were making excuses as to why he could no longer stay with them.  And so with little money, no home, fewer friends, his guitar sold and an alcohol dependency, he took to the streets.

As I listened to his tale and his means to exist (he buys the Big Issue for £1.25 a copy, sells for £2.50 and needed another eight quid to break even that day) I reflected on what a decent bloke he was, and recalled others I’ve met on my travels who were in the same place, and all bewildered at how quick and seemingly irreversible the downward spiral goes.

And I looked at my own plight, at my nice clothes bought in wealthier times, and realised how close I could be to being Paul.  And I thought about the riches of Manchester (a place that makes you want to feel successful) and its well-heeled buzz of office folk and business owners.  How ironic that the homeless should be here, unable to afford to drink in the posh bars yet hanging around them because there’s a slim chance of alms.

Then as I met with my friends I considered how lucky I am; I have a safety net in the kindness of people who love me, people who care, people who are friends.  Yes we too went to swanky bars in Media City, places where I’ve put hundreds of pounds over the bar in former times and hopefully will again.  But looking around at the rich clientele, I couldn’t help but think that if I scratched beneath the surface I could find something altogether different.  It’s quite possible that any of them could find themselves like me, relying on the State and on friends and loved-ones.  Or ultimately they could find themselves like Paul, who’s gone beyond relying on the State – he now relies on the kindness of strangers.  And in future when I walk the streets of Manchester or anywhere, I’ll be far more mindful not to be so judgemental.

 

Down and Out in Crewe and Nantwich

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Not much has changed since my hero wrote this book.  When the wheels fell off my van, as it were, I travelled back to my roots to rebuild my life and career, but to do so I needed help from the State.  I documented my signing on with some humour and compliments to the service provided, but once again Big Mouth Struck Again…

I’m sure I’ll go into more detail next week but today I can’t really be bothered to write at length – I just don’t feel like it because the black dog is back in the room.

In brief, they (meaning the State) said the change of care-of address would be seamless, it wouldn’t disrupt my claim at all.  But after a fortnight with nothing paid I used a friend’s landline to speak to them… after being on hold for what felt like more than a fortnight.  Turned out the signing-on day I’d been given was wrong, so I’ll have to wait another week before the system can pay me any money.  My plea that I haven’t got so much as the price of a cup of tea, and I need to travel to Manchester for important potential work meetings, and this administrative error was not my fault, met with sympathy, I admit, but there was nothing the lady on the phone could do in terms of any emergency payment.  Nothing for it but to sit tight and wait.  Or starve.

So what does one do to get a cup of tea?  Well I guess I am one of the lucky ones in that I have very good and kind friends.  People like homeless James, to whom my readers may remember I gave a bed in the Ottermobile for a night, and others I’ve met on my travels, are less fortunate.  I have, among others, my brother Podge and my friends Gary, Janet and their lovely family.  For days now I’ve “stealth-camped” in their drive and they’ve fed me and given me wine to keep me going.  What on earth I’d do without them I don’t know, because the black dog has been scratching at the door and threatening to chew me up.  There is nothing in the State system, no boxes to tick, to process that particular claim.