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.

 

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From Soap Opera Producer to the Great Unwashed

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I signed on today.  I was dreading it.  As I’ve said before, the dish of dizzy heights and the shitty lows have been staple fare of my life.

Two weeks ago I boarded a train and travelled first class from Leeds to Kings Cross, eating food allegedly cooked by James Martin though he didn’t seem to be around to serve it.  Then I was picked up in a posh limo and ferried to ITV on the Southbank, then up on a stage being the story expert sharing his expertise on storytelling.  It was very successful and I felt good and there were many plaudits.  Then I was limo’d back to Kings Cross and travelled first class back to Leeds where another posh car waited to run me back to the Ottermobile in Frizinghall… and I bedded down in my house on four wheels.

Today I walked a ten-mile round-trip to claim what’s due from the State.  And that’s my story.  It’s no more tragic than anyone else’s, and it’s certainly far less tragic than that of a good many less fortunate souls in the world.  So I won’t feel sorry for myself, I should remember I have much to be thankful for, many to be grateful to and everything to look forward to.  That’s the way it is and that’s how I will view it while laughing in the face of adversity and keeping the dog in the kennel where it belongs.

The many to be grateful to include my beautiful daughter Gabriel, whom we met for coffee the other day.  She’d been swimming with my granddaughter and there she was, a little bundle of joy but shy and tired.  My heart soared at the next storey of the rebuilding relationship.  Then last night I had drinks with my two eldest brothers Podge and Gary, my son Charlie and Mandy.  We did the pub quiz and came joint-second… erm, joint second-last.  But we didn’t care because we were laughing all the time.  I filled them in on some of my travelling anecdotes and updated them on the decrepit state of the Ottermobile, and on how Mandy and I are organising a school reunion.  They filled me in on what’s happening in their lives – how Podge is coping as a widower, how Gary is plodding on in his cheerful way, how Chas is settling into his house in Derby and planning a trip to Germany.  It was great to see them all and see that life goes on.  And, of course, that there is always a story…

Signing on I thought would be an unbearable affair, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a neat office and friendly faces.  I was also surprised by a weird thing that happened, which I’ll come to soon…

I’d anticipated looking at vagabonds, drug-addicts, hopeless souls and Polish-speaking strugglers (and I’m not being prejudiced as there is Polish blood in my family) and I was expecting to be thinking “I’m better than you” but knowing I wasn’t, I am not.  But there was a welcome deal of cheer among us claimants.  And as I waited and got chatting to one or two, the weird thing happened…

It wasn’t long before I was called to the desk by a 50-something bespectacled lady with an open smile, and as I sat opposite her to go through the process, talk about my change of c/o address and my “fairly unique” homeless circumstances, I soon realised that the lady was someone I’d slept with some thirty-five years ago!

I knew this would be an elephant in the room as I couldn’t possibly drop it in, as it were, but the subtext in my mind was “I wonder if she recognises me and I wonder if she’d remember?”  Obviously I won’t name names or go into detail about such a distant and probably meaningless event, but my memory was pretty clear.  Mercifully perhaps, hers wasn’t, because she didn’t seem to recognise me, or remember at all.

I record this only because it was such a strange feeling to be laying my soul bare to her, of all people, about being homeless, “unwashed” and unemployed, yet the boxes she was ticking showed “a very impressive CV”.  She even commented that I came over very well, and I’d therefore, she was sure, have no trouble in finding work within my field.  Then as I thanked her genuinely for being so kind and helpful and shook her hand, I couldn’t help thinking “the last time I touched you…”  And as I left the building I felt surprisingly uplifted for reasons I find difficult to explain.  The top and bottom of it though, was that it somehow made the process far more bearable than I’d expected.

And all the way back to the Ottermobile I laughed to myself and thought how strange life can be, how there’s a story round every corner, how even for the great unwashed there’s a rich lather of material to gather in.

“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.

Big Mouth Strikes Again

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Big Mouth (Herring Gull – Bridlington)

Somebody said I don’t put enough photos in my diary posts – apparently readers today have a short attention-span.  In my view that’s a sad indictment but hey-ho.  So let’s play a pictorial game: Spot the difference between this pic I took of a carousel in York:

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… and this one of my wheel in Bridlington:

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Answer: the carousel goes round whereas my wheel does not.  Because the fucking bearings went.  The story goes like this:

I was heading to Filey, doing about 50, when I heard a loud crunch at the back and the Ottermobile was yanked violently to the left.  I immediately turned the hazards on and pulled over to make emergency calls (and change my underpants).  At first I thought the exhaust had come off but soon realised the rear left wheel was smoking and I could smell the stink of red-hot axle-grease.

Tell me this; why are some people such arseholes?  Though I’d put a warning triangle at the rear and opened the bonnet to show both directions I was in trouble, I still had at least three motorists peeping their horns, flashing their lights and making get-out-of-the-way gestures.  I made fuck off gestures back because as I say, they’re arseholes.  On the other side of the coin, one couple kindly stopped to ask if I was OK.  Not arseholes.  But I digress.

Eventually, saviour arrived in a mechanic called Ian from Beverley – a young and handsome man with a friendly face and disposition.  He jacked me up, as it were, took one look and said “It’s your bearings.”

“What’s up with them?” I asked.

“They’re fucked,” he replied.

“Right.  Is that the technical term and more importantly is it a big job?”

“You need a recovery vehicle and I knock off at 5,” he said, “It’s my lass’s birthday and we’ve got a table booked.”

In man-to-man language I knew that meant he was on a promise, and far be it from me to get in the way of a man’s conjugal rights, fucked bearings or no fucked bearings.

Ian wasn’t being unhelpful, he just didn’t have the tools to fix the job onsite, all he could do was escort me off the road and onto a safe place while I waited for a recovery truck.  So very slowly I crept some 500 yards to a farmer’s drive as Ian made the necessary calls.  Telling me that help would be there in an hour, he shook my hand and left.

“Enjoy your shag,” I quipped, and he gave me a wink that said it all.

As promised, within an hour, further assistance arrived in Rob, who deftly tail-ended me, as it were, and told me to get in the back of his pick-up because his lass was in the front.  “What is it about Yorkshiremen and their lasses?” I thought, “Are they joined at the hip?”  But anyway it turned out to be a family business owned by Rob’s father-in-law, and as we towed the Ottermobile back to Bridlington I got to know this lovely couple as best I could.  Also from Beverley, they bigged-up the town and its market, its minster (where they got married 15 years ago) and its horse racing.  And they’d be combining this job with a fish and chip treat on the seafront, especially if the famous Audrey’s was open.

When we got to the garage it was closed (or “clersed” as they pronounce it in their nick of the woods) so they dropped me on the forecourt, leaving me to prep for the night.

The garage was in a residential street and there were loads of kids running about, clearly amused at the sight of a grey old man putting his slippers on.  I fearfully expected Jimmy Savile references but mercifully none forthcame.  But they hung around for ages, causing me to wonder what time kids go to fucking bed these days!

When it finally went quiet except for seagulls’ cries, I did some soul-searching.  How had it come to this?  How had my life gone so tits-up?  Yet another depressing setback, halting my project and progress up to Scotland.  So I had to think of Aline, and Lucy, and James the gypsy hitch-hiker,  and all the others I’d met on my journey who were fucked-up but always ready with a smile.  Because we are all fucked-up in some way, I mused, just some of us are more fucked-up than others.  And some of us cope with fucked-up-ness better than others.

“Look on the bright side,” said Jayne on the phone, “You’re alive and you’ve got somewhere to sleep.”  She was right of course, that’s true.  But it’s also true that I’d had another brush with death; both Rob and Ian said I was lucky because if I’d driven 100 yards further the wheel would’ve come off – and if I’d been on a motorway…  It didn’t bear thinking about.

That’s why this one’s called Big mouth Strikes Again.  Not because I’m a fan of The Smiths and Morrissey, which I am, but because I’d dismissed Bridlington for its lacking lustre, and then I’m expecting it to put me up for the night and get my Ottermobile fixed on the cheap.  And I was bragging about my project, saying it’s helping with the black dog and all that.  Well I should’ve kept my trap shut because this was the second potentially-fatal incident (loyal readers will remember an early post about my brakes failing in Halifax).  If these things come in threes, the next time it’s curtains.  At times like this I wouldn’t care.

Bet Lynch Lives in Bridlington

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In a Bridlington pub I settled with my Guardian and Gillette Soccer Saturday, knowing I had to make two pints last six hours.  Which is no mean feat.  Nursing a drink till the froth is dried on the inside of the glass is the pub equivalent of stealth-camping – you’re sitting quiet, hoping not to get noticed, while of course gazing upon the world as it goes by.  All fine, except that someone did notice – the barmaid, who bore an exciting resemblance to Bet Lynch.

Her name was in fact Lucy.  Somewhere between 50 and 60 and trying to knock ten years off, Lucy was blonde, busty, voluptuous, provocatively-cleavaged in red (not leopard-print) and done up to the nines.  Her towering locks were tied up and her ears were pierced with dangly numbers as big as windchimes.  In younger days she would’ve been beautiful and though three marriages, six kids, thirteen grandkids and a current torrid, door-slamming relationship with potential hubby number 4 have taken their toll, she still looks good.  And I imagine a throng of men loitering at the bar either staring at their pint or more likely her impressive chest.  I could be one of them, because I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if I fancied the woman.

I got her story when I went up for my second ale and she commented, not inaccurately or judgmentally, that I was a slow supper.  I laughed and corrected that if I had the money I’d be supping quicker and coming back more often.  I wasn’t looking for sympathy, just stating fact.  But anyway she seemingly felt sorry for me and put this one on the house.  If money didn’t change hands then life-stories did.  The bar was quiet at this point, early doors, so there was the freedom and privacy conducive to intimacy.  She’d noticed I’d been scribbling in my notebook so asked if I were a writer and as I described my project she seemed impressed, so I nervously dropped in that I’m searching human stories and characters and she reminded me of Bet Lynch.  She laughed and said she’d had that dozens of times, though in her game you don’t get much time for telly and anyway she’d prefer Eastenders.  Fair enough, I said, each to their own.

Lucy didn’t hail from East Yorkshire, she was a Leodensian, a “Wessie” as they call them here (ie someone from West Yorkshire).  She hadn’t travelled much, too many kids and and too little money, though some years ago she flirted with the idea of emigrating to Australia with her first husband… but that didn’t happen because he turned out to be a “cock”.  As did husbands number 2 and 3, she added.

I could’ve chatted to Lucy for hours but there was football to watch and a crossword to do and the bar was getting busy.  And as I sipped my ale and watched my team go down to Everton, I pondered how ephemeral and loveless is this life; you flit from place to place where love is swift arrows.  Fleeting meetings and greetings, if you like shit poetry.

By 7pm I’m walking down the prom with my guitar and a bag of chips, thinking that like other places I’ve laid my hat, there’s so much beauty while the town itself is something they forgot to bomb.  And I think about Lucy and her cleavage, her windchimes and her door-slamming husband-to-be.  I wanted to get to know her more but clearly that was impossible – inviting Tony into my campervan the other day was one thing, but saying to a woman “Would you like to come back to my van?” is a far from impressive chat-up line.   And of course she was taken.  And of course I shouldn’t assume she fancied me.  So as I stealth-camp near Bempton Cliffs I say to myself, “You’re on your own again, cock.”

Important Landmarks

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It’s my son Dominic’s birthday today and it’s scary that my second-eldest is pushing thirty.  Doesn’t seem that long since we were playing football in the park, my teaching a three-year-old toddler my silky skills.  Now he’s in Omagh with his beautiful girlfriend Zoe and I wish I were there too… but I’m stuck in my lay-by waiting for a welder, and I often told him you should always respect your welders.  Sorry I can’t be there son; I love you and here’s wishing you many happy returns.

Talking of landmarks, it’s now 75 days and nights since I started my off-grid project.  Yes I’ve treated myself to the odd pub steak or burger or haggis, and more than the odd pint of best as I’ve chatted up the locals.  And yes I’ve been called a paedophile by teenage thugs, been tooted at by tossers in white vans assuming I’m getting laid, or ran the gauntlet of fist-fighting gypsies… but on the whole it’s been a peaceful 75 days and I can’t help reflecting that the most stressful times have been at the mercy of bureaucracy and mechanical law.  The same problems everyone has, or at least every motorist – how do I get my car through its MoT?  How do I find a reputable, reliable garage?  How do I get a welder?  In other words, it’s more stressful on-grid than off.

When I’m off-grid it seems to me that by and large folk aren’t aware or don’t care who’s sleeping in his van in a lay-by or across from their house.  Is this because they’re too busy worrying about their MoTs?  Or their job, or whose arse to lick in order to keep their job, or who to befriend on Facebook because there’s a chance it might help keep their job…?  Or is it because actually people here are laissez-faire; they’re happy to let people get on with their life, however alien, as long as it doesn’t infringe on theirs?  I truly hope it’s the latter.  So anyway finding a lay-by and making sure I eat, I’m safe, and I get a good night’s kip has been far less stressful than I anticipated… so far at least.

The second point I’d like to make is that though I’m only a fifth of the way through my project/experiment/adventure, I’m finding it really helps manage depression.  This is because I live with the freedom to be where I want when I want.  I’m seeing some beautiful places and meeting some fascinating people with stories to tell.  I’m learning about them and I’m learning about myself.  I’m walking hundreds and hundreds of miles of the beautiful British coastline and countryside.  I’m making a cathartic journey through my past, writing what I want to write with freedom and without constraint.  I’ve seen friends and family I haven’t seen in ages due to my selfish and blinkered ascent of the career ladder in order to be pushed off it.  And most importantly and profoundly of all I’ve reunited with my beautiful daughter and met my grandchildren.

In short I’ve journeyed to what’s important and much of this, I believe, has been made possible because I made an alternative life-choice, went to “another place”.  And to the doubters who asked “what could possibly go wrong?” I say that so far nothing has gone wrong, bar the ball-ache of red-tape that you have every single day.  There’s a long way to go, both in time and in mileage… but so far, my friends, so good.  On this important day I reflect on all those years bringing up my kids.  And how quick time marches and how vital it is to make the most of it and make the right choices.