Time to Talk

EOTY8088

https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/get-involved/time-talk-day-2018

It’s TIME TO TALK DAY and I’m not sure what to say.  I’m feeling ambivalent.  I’m very happy to support the above initiative because it’s vital that we talk.  However, when I began to scribble notes to form this post I began also to realise depression and anger were the principle emotions emanating from the slanted words on the page.

We depressives can only speak subjectively, the illness is in our minds and I am minded to suggest always that it is by definition selfish.  We therefore have a responsibility to ourselves to find ways through the darkest days (which as I’ve said before are in my case and incongruously the colour orange).  But it’s not necessary, or even possible, to achieve this all by ourselves.  We need help, from ourselves, from our loved-ones, and from our employers…

This is a drum I’ve banged many times before on this and other forums and I don’t pretend to want to stop.  Employers.  Do they understand mental illness?  Do they manage it well or do they choose to manage it out?  Would they react in the same way if I had cancer?  Do they struggle with the issue because it’s invisible (a depressive seeing orange can have cheeks the healthy colour of gala apples)?  Or are they suspicious of the illness in case it’s an invention to mask indolence or lack of ability or talent?

I wonder if this is what can give us a bad name?  Any of us could claim to be feeling seriously ill when really we’re just ‘off-colour’, a bit like limping into the doctor’s surgery and claiming we’ve got sciatica then skipping out clutching a note for a week off work.  So in a way I can understand the suspicion, because we can look fine, we can even have a laugh at the watercooler, and we can seemingly be able to do our jobs perfectly well.  But of course we are not perfectly well, we’re seizing up inside and our engines are just conking out – because it really is a physical illness.

So it’s not enough for employers to give superficial valeting.  It’s all very well giving us time off and the offer of a phased return to work, but there should be more responsible understanding of the illness and more constructive and sustainable support.  Again, we have a responsibility here because we should never feel (or be made to feel) our workplace is a charity and we’re seeking preferential treatment or meekly feeling sorry for ourselves.  We should be unembarrassed, proud even, to say we suffer from mental illness and we’ll need careful management if that’s not too much to ask.

With regard to my industry, which has such a voracious appetite and need for story, it always struck me as ironic that the assiduous mining of fiction meant overlooking the real-life stories of some of those at the coalface, who are in fact being crushed by the wheels of industry and savaged by the dog.

When I lost my job I was wretched, homeless and suicidal – the swanky lifestyle I’d been living was at a stroke demolished along with my soul.  But who cared?  And what can you do?  You can choose to walk into the sea or walk on to the next thing.  In my case the next thing was to buy a house on wheels and travel and write about some of the bad things but more importantly some of the good things in my world.  In other words I was taking responsibility, some would say in an extreme way, but I was genuinely testing myself and dreaming that I could travel new avenues and perhaps draw attention to my plight.  And I always knew there was a safety-net in the form of the many friends and family I’m lucky enough to turn to.

And that’s ultimately what I did, and it’s thanks to them too that I could drive to the beach (as I often did) and keep my feet dry.

So while I had misgivings about Time to Talk Day in terms of how it made me feel, I now feel less ambivalent because I’ve done just that – I’ve talked, and in talking I’ve reminded myself of all the good things in the world and all the good people who’ve helped me through, and all the good things about me that have also helped me through.  I’ve needed help and I’ve needed to help myself.  And yes, I’ve needed to talk.  And it’s helped.

Advertisements

In the Event of My Death

IMG_1820

Earlier this year I became homeless and contemplated suicide.

But then things changed.  I took to the road in my Ottermobile, met some amazing people, got told great stories, had many adventures, diced with involuntary death, wrote lots of things, learned who my all-weather friends are, met my grandchildren for the first time, made some self-discoveries, and fell in love.

Yesterday, in the spirit of remembrance I walked eleven miles to my parents’ graves, reading epitaphs and cenotaphs bearing the family name.  All this led to the most profound epiphanic discovery of all – that these people gave their lives to me and I have a lot to live for, so to throw myself off Beachy Head would be to throw it back in their faces.

While losing a job and a home broke me in two, I had many friends and family who were there to glue me back together, and though for months on end it was just me in the van in the middle of nowhere, I was never alone.  So I have a duty to all those wonderful people to see this thing through, and a duty to myself to prove to the fair-weather friends and contortionists that I won’t be giving up.

I won’t for a second pretend it’s easy.  Being a gypsy is tough, just about managing is just about getting through each fucking day.  It’s a battle, not a world war I grant you, nevertheless a battle.

Back in March when I lost my posh apartment in Salford Quays I relied on friends and family to store the few sticks I clung on to, which means everything I own, if it isn’t on the van, is strewn around the country like so:

  • Boxes of books and scripts and things in Jayne’s attic in Yorkshire
  • Dining table and chairs and my beloved plants at Kimbles’ in Salford Quays
  • Wardrobe and African carvings at Dominic’s in Sheffield
  • My best suits in case I get a job in Mandy’s spare room in Nantwich
  • CD’s at Charlie’s in Derby
  • Antique rocking horse (I kid you not) at Emily’s in Preston
  • Not quite sure but I think there’s a box of something in Bubble’s house in Crewe
  • A van that sits gathering moss at Gary and Janet’s in Willaston
  • And finally, somewhere or other, my will

As I’ve said before in these ramblings, all this existential nonsense serves either to make me weep with sorrow or piss my pants with laughter.

Talking of which, last night I chatted unmorbidly with Mandy about the school reunion, and in posing the question “why?” we agreed it’s more than just for fun, it’s really about mortality – we’re doing this because we’re still alive (despite the odds in my case) and thinking really about how much time is there left?  And in these uncertain times when poundland terrorists want to mow us down at Christmas markets because they haven’t even got the guts to wage a proper war (if such a thing exists) it’s good to do nice things and show them we won’t be beat.  We stand together against the enemy, at Christmas markets or anywhere.  And most important of all, making sure we make the most of what we’ve got left.  And even more important than the most important of all, making sure we have a laugh.

So as we were laughing, she asked if I’d made a will, to which I replied yes but my life and death is in boxes all over the country, so I wonder where it is?

“Well,” she laughed, “sounds like it’s either in Jayne’s attic, Dominic’s cellar, Kimbles’ airing cupboard or Bubble’s back bedroom.”

I was naturally tickled by this alliterative summary, then got to seriously thinking it’s such an important document and I must dig it out.  Things have changed.  I’m not ready.  I’ve survived all these months on the road, I’ve laughed in the black dog’s face and I’ve managed to eat on the breadline.  I’ve realised the less I have the more I want to give and the more I want to show the world I’ve more to give.  I will battle on till time, the greatest enemy of them all, takes me.

So as for my will, fuck knows, but whoever’s got it, I just hope I manage to find it before you do!

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

IMG_1787

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.

That Sinking Feeling – walking with the dog

IMG_1784

Pigs at Fordhall Farm, Shropshire

Walking, or so they say, is good for depression.  I use the ambiguous phrase deliberately and this is why…  In recent months I’ve walked hundreds of miles of the English, Scottish and Welsh shores – I’ve stomped through woodlands, I’ve climbed rocky terrains and I’ve rambled or coddiwompled over fields, meadows, heaths and moorlands, while all the time keeping my feet warm, blister-free and dry.  Yet here, right on my doorstep, I step out for a leisurely stroll and within minutes I’m up to my nuts in mud.

On a beautiful Autumn Sunday as the clocks bent over backwards to give us an extra hour of life, Mandy and I chose to explore Fordhall Farm near Market Drayton.  We kitted out in combats with a packed lunch and a hunk of Kendal Mint Cake lest we were to be marooned in the Shropshire wilds.  But wait a minute; Kendal Mint Cake, who eats that shit?  I bought a bar on my travels through, well, Kendal, en route to the Lake District, and it remained un-nibbled on my Ottermobile for weeks until I finally chucked it away or used it to stick postcards to my ceiling.

But I digress.  Fordhall Farm is a wonderful community-run organic farm.  It’s policy and its history are fascinating and I’ll let enthusiasts Google it for detail so as I can get to my story.  Next to the picnic garden is a field sloping down to the River Tern, which babbles happily towards the Severn (where my old pal Alfie and I regularly fished).  But here, the Tern’s shallow waters are allegedly home to the otters, which avid readers will know is a personal crusade of mine.

So there we rambled and meandered along the waterside, full of hope for a glimpse of the otters in their holt.  Some 500 yards into our journey there was a small and ancient copse of decaying willows which I led us through with Mears-esque confidence.

“Who cares,” said I, “that it’s a little soft underfoot at times?  I have my brilliant walking boots that have served me well all summer.  They’re expensive North Ridge Vibram Frame Flex Chassis, made for all terrains.”

And I even afforded myself an affectionately-smug smile at Mandy’s wellies, thinking it was a little over-cautious on her part.  “And who cares,” I went on, “that the sign in the shop said Walk only suitable for adults and older children and Wellingtons are recommended…?  I’ve walked miles in the last few months, this is a fucking doddle.”  And it was just then that I sank knee-deep into the bog.

Now it’s very difficult to be cool when you’re floundering in shit, but I did try to reassure Mandy that all was well and I’d soon regain my balance.  But it’s a bit like being pissed – the more effort you put in to appearing sober, the more clumsy and frankly ridiculous you behave.  So I reached out a hand to grip one of the willows, but fell short by some distance and lost my footing altogether.  In the panic I tried to run myself out of trouble, but the bog ripped off one of my boots and sucked it ‘neath the surface, meaning I was running and getting nowhere in my stocking-feet through a three-foot deep layer of treacly shit.

Normally in these circumstances one would look for sympathy from a loved-one, but Mandy could only wet herself laughing.  Admittedly she helped to fish out my precious boot, but mitigation is only slight because she rather sarcastically pointed out that I’d been warned about wearing wellies.  At which point I had to laugh myself.

But going back to my original point, lesser souls than I would get depressed at landing in the shit and having to spend the rest of the day with their feet squelching and farting their way through it.  Whereas I am made of sterner stuff; I have all the energy of a bar of Kendal Mint Cake and I have all the uncontrollable or even maniacal laughter of a fairground clown.  So is walking good for depression?  Is it good to walk the dog?  I’d say yes, forget the dog, I was happy as a pig in shite.

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

IMG_1702

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.

 

Friends Reunited

IMG_1680

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.