“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.

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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.

 

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