In the Event of My Death

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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!

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Keeping Warm this Winter (“For here am I sitting in my tin can…”)

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As the temperature plummeted, last night was the most uncomfortable yet aboard the Ottermobile.  I woke up with icicles hanging from my nose and more than probably elsewhere too.  I’m not one to moan about the weather but it was fucking freezing and I realised it could be time for sleeping bag No2 (pictured above).

I paid a lot of money for this and it’s been stowed unslept-in beneath my passenger seat along with my tools, my gun and my hopes and dreams.  The other bag, which cost about twenty quid from Argos, has served me well through the summer, but last night I noted that I could see through it; just a tissue-thin sheet of cotton between me and my leaky roof.

So as I woke at 4am to pee (and snap off the icicles) I started pondering the imminent winter months and what it’ll be like living them in my tin can.  And shuddered.

Then later in the morning my phone rang; it was a London number and I hoped it’d be work in the offing, but I could hear the background hubbub and quickly clocked that it was a call-centre.

“Good morning am I speaking to Mr Bickerstaffe and how are you today sir?”

“Cold,” I said, bluntly.

“My name’s Cindy (let’s call her that) from Acme Energy (let’s call it that) and I’m calling with an offer to reduce your energy bills.”

“Ah,” I said, “I should tell you that I’m homeless so if it’s offers to reduce my energy bills I shouldn’t waste your time.”

“No problem,” she replied, “Goodbye.”

Now really I should’ve left it at that, but found myself saying “Wait a minute, don’t hang up!  What do you mean “no problem”?  I consider homelessness to be a massive problem, especially as I’m the one freezing his cock off in a van!”

But she’d gone.  Again I should’ve left it there, but it put me in a bad mood as I thought of her in a warm office and going home to a nice fish n chip supper beside the fire.  And shuddered.

Tonight I’m heading south to Stoke (if the Ottermobile will make it) where I’ll meet my son, some old mates and watch the game tomorrow.  It’ll be my first visit to the Bet365 Stadium for three years and I’m looking forward to it, courtesy of my good pal Rog Malkin who’s helping me out with a couple of freebie tickets.  Tomorrow night will be the 150th of my nomadic project and worthy of celebration, or put another way, commiseration.

But it’ll be nice to spend it in a place I love on the day of a Stoke victory, whatever the weather and whether it’s cold or not.

In the coming days I’ll be looking after my friend Gary’s dogs and teaching them new tricks, and I’ll get in the garden doing odd jobs in order to repay his kindness while he and his wife Janet are away.  It’s a big house and a considerable plot the likes of which I dream of, and for a week I’ll be laird.  I’ll still sleep in the tin can though, so they can rest in the sunshine assured that I won’t be venturing upstairs and rooting through their knicker drawers.

This reminds me of an electrician I used to know who confessed that when alone in a house this was his thing.  I’d asked him to have a look at wiring my loft so I could light it and board it out.  But when he told me his pernicious tale I decided I’d risk electrocution and do the job myself.  And shuddered.

No, I’ll be sleeping on the Ottermobile inside my special expensive bag, thinking of James and other homeless folk I’ve met on my travels, who’re less fortunate even than me.  And I’ll be hoping the winter isn’t too inclement or I can find some work to take me off the streets.

Until that day it’s Jobseekers’ Allowance and the kindness of friends and loved-ones and the odd few quid I can make on the side.  To that end I’ll wrap this post up with two questions: 1) when will someone make an offer for my long-lost priceless Lowry painting?  And 2) is there a market for used sleeping bags on Ebay?

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.

Blogging and Television – a True Story

In my recent travels I met with a TV Producer in Bradford.  He’d been following my blog and liking it, and contacted me to discuss ways of dramatising it for TV.  We’d arranged to meet in the Brewhaus Bar near the Alhambra Theatre, where he bought me a pint and suggested a curry afterwards in Neal Street, which was just up my street.

We got chatting about all things drama and I embellished some tales of my nomadic experiences.  He’d read them all and whereas the blog is I think a mere stream of consciousness, he kindly said they were “more-ish.”  Along my desultory route I had naturally pondered televisual adaptations of my prose and I was happy to hear he was thinking similarly.  We were on the same hymn sheet, as they say in church and indeed everywhere else.

From the Brewhaus (which I liked very much) we strolled to the Karachi Curry House, which was apparently the first ever such eatery in Bradford, catering for millworkers.  Of course there are thousands now, but it was good to see this one had retained its identity and reputation for no-nonsense, unlicensed nosh; cheap, very tasty and served on formica tables minus cutlery (there were plates though).  Such is the charm and excellence of the place, there was a couple in their 60s who regularly travel from as far as the Black Country to have a sit-down meal here.

Anyway we had a good old catch-up the Producer and I, and something happened which was rather astonishing – he paid the bill.  Having lived in Yorkshire for five years or so when working on Emmerdale, I know this is worthy of note – to get as much as a pint of beer off a Yorkshireman is as rare a sight as a pile of teddy-bear shit.

But the point of this entry isn’t to make cheap jokes about the Yorkshireman’s parsimony (he’s actually a very kind bloke and a good sort), it’s to recount some of our dissertations on story, narrative arcs and the need for truth in drama.

When he asked what kind of story I like best in my travelogue, I said that very often it’s the simple tales of everyday folk.  Looking back over some of the entries, I picked out favourites including the one about Phil from Newcastle, who was chained bollock-naked to a lamp-post on his stag night, and all he could worry about was what his lass would say.  And the tale of Steve, whose wife Tracy called him a useless twat because he forgot the Amber Solaire on their cathartic trip to Saltburn.  These were simple things happening to feckless men who happened to be shit-scared of their wife, or in Phil’s case wife-to-be.

But why also are they my favourites, the salient memories of my 140-day journey so far?  It’s because I think they’re resonant of the show I grew up with called Coronation Street.  Imagine Stan Ogden, a useless fat layabout nagged to death by Hilda, and Jack Duckworth quaking in his boots at the very thought of Vera’s bubble-perm and metaphorical rolling-pin.  These characters (and as I touched on in my eulogy to Liz Dawn the other week, they don’t make them like that any more) were so beautifully-observed out of real life and their stories were not in the main reliant on car-crashes, heists and kidnappings, they were tender, simple, familiar and heartwarming tales of struggling working-class couples trying to get through each day unscathed then go to bed and dream of waking up to something better – ie. a few more quid in the bank.

So when I think of story, this is how I think – a car crash doesn’t make a story, a kidnapping isn’t story either, these are happenings, events.  And when I think of truth, this is how I think – truth is what I know, what I relate to.  I can relate to the Oggies and the Duckworths, I’ve met them everywhere and I’ve met the modern equivalent in Phil from Newcastle and Steve and Tracy from Birmingham.

But in all my 53 years and all my travels both recent and in the distant past, I have never once met someone’s who’s been bundled into the boot of a car and driven into the woods to have his head chopped off, or locked in a cupboard and left to starve.  I’m not for a minute suggesting these things don’t happen (and pity the poor bastards they happen to) I’m just saying it’s not my world and it’s not for me what inherently makes drama or story.

I’m realistic enough to know that these days the audience wants bells and whistles and front covers that tell them everything’s going to be sensational.  But I can’t help wishing sometimes the front covers would say we’re going to be treated to a tender, moving, humorous love story between a feckless oaf and a battleaxe.  Or maybe I’m just too old-fashioned or just too old for this, or just my life isn’t remotely sensational!

Then again, when I consider that soaps and serial dramas pull in millions whereas my blog is read by one man and his dog, I might be talking out of my arse.  So if this blog ever does get televised I might find myself rewriting Steve as a serial killer who gets sick of Tracy’s nagging and takes to wacking her over the head with a monkey wrench, and Phil chained bollock-naked to the lamp-post and getting eaten alive by foxes.

But to be honest I’d struggle with that, because it didn’t happen, so it wouldn’t be the truth.

 

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.

 

A to Z of Being Down and Out

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Tony Wilkinson – Down And Out, BBC books

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

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

THE A to Z OF THE DOWN-AND-OUT

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

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

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

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

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

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

G – Gratitude.  What you feel for the above.

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

– Ignominy.

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

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

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

M – Motherfucking misery.

N – No.  My least-favourite word.

O – Oh no.  My least-favourite phrase.

P – Poverty.

Q – Queuing with cap in hand.

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

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

– Terrible.  Ditto.

U – Undervalued.  Ditto.

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

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

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

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

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

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