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.

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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.

 

Liz Dawn

It’s with great sadness that I hear that Liz has died.  Perhaps portentously, I’d been scribbling notes in my diary about meeting with a TV director and our discussions on what makes a good character and what makes good story – then I wake to hear that one of the greatest soap opera characters of all time has passed away.  I say characters deliberately – of course it’s the actress who’s died, but in recalling moments that I was lucky enough to share with Liz, at work and at leisure, I’m bound to say that she was a character too.

At work she was hilarious company and extremely dedicated to the part of Vera Duckworth, whom she played brilliantly for many years.  At leisure, she was great fun to be with and if I may say so a terrific flirt – I’ll spare the detail but she once flirted with me in The Grapes in Manchester, and tried to pair me off with her daughter!  How often have I dined out on that story?!

But returning to the part of Vera, what a part to play and how wonderfully-storylined and written!  I have so many happy and laughter-filled memories of Jack and Vera, their sparring, their blazing rows and their tender moments that demonstrated the heart and truth of a couple the likes of which are found in terraced streets up and down the country.  The fact that Liz and Bill Tarmey played them with such brilliance made us nudge each other and say “they’re just like that couple across the road”… or indeed “they’re just like you and me.”

I’m often accused of being over-nostalgic in terms of Coronation Street, the show I was brought up on and lucky enough to serve for twenty years, but to my dying day I’ll adhere to the principle that the programme must thrive with characters like Jack and Vera at its very heart.

So while Liz has sadly passed, and will I like to think be joining Bill in heaven, I know in my heart that her legacy will live on, her voice will for ever echo down the cobbles, and the many rich stories will stay with those of us who remember, till we also shuffle off this mortal coil.

Liz Dawn, our Vera, ciao, Mark.

Friends Reunited

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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.

What’s it all about Alfie? (A Love Story)

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Two old goats for neighbours on my travels – or L to R Alfie, Me

Bimble (v) walk or travel at a leisurely pace

Thanks to my old school pal Fred Parker, who gave me this word in response to my question in Five Go Off to Stealth-camp.

The eponymous Alfie (AKA Roger Hinde) is the very old friend I referred to yesterday and the story of our reunion is as follows:  I was in Nantwich Library trying to sign on (a soap opera in itself) when I heard this voice proclaim, “You’re not allowed in here!”

“Bollocks,” I said to myself, then turned to see Alfie, looking no different from when I last saw him some ten years ago as he visited my apartment in Castlefield Manchester.  At the time I was Coronation Street Story Editor and his visit was a welcome break from the very long hours of creative toil.

Now, at the grand old age of 66 (same age as my brother Podge – they went to the Grammar School together) there was still the boundless energy and twinkle in his eye.  In his younger days when he was treading the boards he would’ve passed for a David Essex lookalike with his cheeky grin and Romany ruddiness.  “The years have treated you well Alfie,” I said mid-manhug.  But how wrong I was, as he soon went on to tell me he’d had cancer for five years and nearly died.

I’ll go deeper on this later but first I’ll describe the buoyant reunion of us two old goats as I invited him aboard the Ottermobile for a brew.  Because with Alfie you never get to finish a story – much like a soap opera.  As conversation fizzles, you’re energised and carried away on the tide of wit and keenness.  You try to compete with his joie de vivre and the stories it offers.  Your anecdotes are wittily interrupted by his, and the chat crackles into creative avenues you didn’t realise were on the A to Z.  In a nutshell you’re inspired.

One of our reminiscences was about “bimbling” through the English and Welsh countryside, normally via river or canal, a pursuit we followed often, and often with fishing tackle on our backs.  As I touched on yesterday, we once fished at the Tern Mouth of the River Severn, where he knew barbel liked to chew Spam.  I’d never seen a barbel before, let alone catch one, so imagine my surprise and delight when I pulled out this beautiful huge fish, before of course putting it unharmed back in the water.  But as always with these things there has to be a cloud, in the form of Alfie’s sulking because my barbel was bigger than the tiddler he reeled in!  He will of course dispute this claim.

Back in the day, and I’m talking twenty-odd years ago, along with other arty projects we formed a theatre company called Grand Junction with a view to touring a series of playlets about the history of Crewe’s railways.  But we got bogged down in all the politics of Equity and the Independent Theatre Council so the project was back-burnered.  Also my 18-month work in Rwanda impeded matters somewhat.  This was the selfish pursuit of a career that I’ve referred to earlier, which meant leaving friends behind… and ultimately the disintegration of my first marriage.

Anyway amid these and other unfinished yarns, he had coffee, a bag of crisps and a bar of chocolate from the Ottermobile larder; pretty much my weekly ration.  And I realised that despite his health scare he still had that ravenous appetite to eat seven more potatoes than a pig.  And he didn’t even bother to wash his cup, the fucker.  But I forgave him that omission as he described how close to death he’d been, which made crockery pale into insignificance.

But for me it also put things into perspective as he recounted that when it was “touch and go” he received many visitors genuinely offering help and favour, but then when he recovered these visits gradually abated – a story of fair-weather friends and their disappointment that Alfie didn’t die, that Alfie had this indomitable determination to pull through and prove to the bastards he wouldn’t shuffling off the coil without protest.  Hence I observed parallels between his story and mine, and the realisation of what’s really important, what life is really all about ie. its delivery of friends and loved-ones, which are more important through thick and thin than any politics or any wealth a career might afford.

Mine and Alfie’s bromance was a mini soap opera with its highs and lows.  We’d chew the fat, set the world to rights, deconstruct the arts of writing and acting and downright act the goat.  We’d fall out like lovers do, and rein each other in from our propensity to get carried away with an idea.  He’d be grumpy and truculent and I’d coax him into working that energy into script and performance.  I’d be down and he’d lift me with a well-timed pun or a “nosegay” of Pete and Dud or a snippet from Last of the Summer Wine.

And I’m happy that the bromance will now be rekindled.  We’ll probably write together again, free from the shackles of politics, unleashed from the need to please others.  We will have fresh adventures from the Ottermobile.  And we will undoubtedly bimble.  But above all, we will laugh and laugh.

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Old goats at the cricket – L to R, Compo, Clegg, Foggy, supporting cast

 

Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape

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Pecket Well, as the Actress said to the Bishop

Been thinking a lot about music lately and Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape is one of my all-time favourite songs.

Bridges and rivers and buildings pulled down/Time spent in places my footsteps have found

For me anyway, the lyrics conjure up images both beautiful and dark.  It’s strange, I think, that even a beautiful place can make you feel sad.  I spent many years in Yorkshire and always appreciated its fantastic scenery, yet for various reasons I endured here my darkest “orange” days.  I had a brilliant job and much to offer it, but was getting iller and iller.  The depression led to the darkest day of all when I contemplated suicide, got in a car drunk, felt like driving into a wall.  Only the thought of hurting someone else in the process stopped me.  I sought help and found it but, though in theory my employers were understanding, frankly this was the start of a brilliant middle-distant termination of my services.  Or that’s how it felt I’m afraid.

Yesterday I had a meeting with a renowned TV director and I enjoyed the burst of laughter and creative energy, a reminder of what I’ve been missing since those days of the past (more on this to follow).  And at the time of writing I’m on-grid, travelling First Class by rail to London, where I’ll give a talk on the art of storytelling.  I will be the “expert” sharing my expertise and at the same time unemployed.  Used to public-speaking yet unused.  That’s the story I’m telling, the story of my life, a story of humorous and horrendous contradictions.  A tragicom for the van-dweller wondering if there’s more to his life than van-life.

Singing sad wires of council house mystics/To apply their statistics and read the tealeaves

So why did I go back to Yorkshire?  Well because I needed to.  I needed to tie up loose ends, both creatively and personally.  They call it closure but I should prefer to call it a new beginning.  Weighing up the endless contradictions in my fucked-up life I guess has led to yet another epiphany – time to sort myself out once and for all.  I have nothing but a lot to offer, both creatively and lovingly.  I need to find a home and where better to look than home, my home town that is, where I’ll be reading the tealeaves and looking to render the buildings that have been pulled down.

Time knows no limits for days such as these.