“Rags to Riches”

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Some money

I didn’t jump off Beachy Head so don’t get excited.  I went up there as promised, reined myself in, then came back and stayed the night here…

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The Grand Hotel Eastbourne – “A Palace by the Sea.”

This was where the ITV story event was held, for over 100 eager delegates.  I might write more on this in subsequent posts, but just to say for now that it was a very successful and enjoyable day.  Not least because I met Ian Kelsey.

I’d always admired this brilliant actor, but that day I learned he’s also a brilliant man, intelligent, interesting, friendly and a damn good laugh.  We had lots in common, notably: a) he once worked on the railways, b) he has a dog and thinks I should get one too, and c) he’s a camper-vanner!

Naturally and genuinely, he was interested in my off-grid life and travels and how I’ve tried to come to terms with a career that’s careered, as it were, over the cliff.  We really hit it off and vowed to keep in touch; he even said that if I’m ever down his way I should call in and he’d run me a bath – he’s not the first to offer me this service and it always makes me chuckle because the inference is that I pong a bit!  I am, after all, one of the great homeless unwashed.

Yet here I was briefly turning rags to riches in palatial surroundings where men in top hats opened doors for me and called me Sir (which makes a pleasant change from “Gyppo”).  And I confess it felt rather odd, and not altogether comfortable, because I couldn’t tip the man who showed me to my room and demonstrated how to switch the lights on; I couldn’t afford to buy myself a nice glass of wine with olives; I couldn’t stretch to anything from the mini-bar, and I couldn’t offer a few shillings to the waiter…

Like actors, writers have their professional ups and downs and I’ve written before about feast versus famine.  So while it’s nice to spend a night in such a beautiful hotel, it’s also a teasing reminder of how wonderfully the feast compares and I couldn’t stop thinking, not for the first time in my life, when am I going to get a few quid again?

On the plus side, being minus money reminded me of a little anecdote I’d like to share with you…

Some twenty-seven years ago, my favourite Uncle Arnold popped in to see my beautiful daughter Gabriel, who’d be five, and gave her some money.

“Put it safe,” said Uncle Arnold, avuncularly.

“I will,” said Gabriel.

“Have you got a money box?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“And does your dad ever put money in it for you?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, “with a knife.”

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“Beachy Head (and how to avoid jumping off it)”

White Cliffs of Dover

Beachy Head, but I see a Shark’s Head

To continue with the theme of contradiction (see Postcard from a Traveller) here’s a story about my next journey, which isn’t via Ottermobile but is indicative of my eccentric existence over the past 180 days.

I’ve written copiously in these pages about homelessness and poverty and the fruitless search for work and the sickening ignominy of refusal.  But at last I can fill some inches with word of a job, a temporary job, a job for a day, where tomorrow ITV are sending me by train from Nantwich to Eastbourne and there I’ll once again stand onstage sharing storytelling expertise.

I’ll be great at it, I’ll go down a storm as I always do, and it’ll make me me feel ephemeral self-worth, goodness and to boot euphoria.  It sounds arrogant, pompous even, but I don’t care because I just know it, and after all I’m an expert and experts are supposed to know and experts are expert at knowing.

Before the event they’ll put me up in a wedding cake of a hotel a stone’s throw from Beachy Head, in which I’ll digest posh grub, drink expensive wine (if it’s on the house) and sleep in crisp white sheets with my head on huge marsh-mallows.  In my room I’ll make coffee from the kettle I’ll have to keep on the floor because the 6-inch flex won’t reach the socket above the dressing table-cum-writing bureau.

I’ll marvel at the prices in the mini-bar and resist the urge to down the whisky and replenish the bottle with tap water.  I’ll watch TV from my giant bed and channel-hop because I can.  And while I’ll leave the mini-bar shut, I’ll naturally (and with equanimity) nab the toiletries which I’ll reckon are there for the taking.  The trouser-press, however, will be left well alone.  As will The Bible.

After a hearty breakfast, my first in months, I’ll go to work and, as I say, be good at it.  Then, before heading back up North I’ll saunter to Beachy Head.  There, before the rolling tide, I’ll mull over how it went just now, how good I was, how receptive were the guests and how pleased ITV will be with my brief moments in the ambassadorial spotlight.  But I’ll also ask myself some questions:

If I am so good, why am I so bad at managing the black dog and holding down a full-time job?  If I am such an expert know-all, how come I’ve no idea where the next wage will be coming from?  And if I’m so wonderful, how can I only wonder why the hell I’m living in a van?  There will be no answer from the Bible I left behind in the wedding cake, no manual from Neptune, no rhyme or reason from the sea and no explanation from anywhere for the most profound of all – why did I come to Beachy Head?

Some twenty people a year, statistics say, come here to end their days.  In order to stop them there’s a telephone box, a Samaritans sign writ large and surveillance teams on hand.  But of course while all these are worthy and brilliant, I’ll look to myself as I always do for responsibility.

No matter how bad life seems at times, and how powerful the temptation to jump, there’s always something to cling on to.  In my life I have many things: my friends, my family and my loved-ones who’ve been so unfailingly charitable to me over the past long months when I’ve needed them most.  And while I’m standing there with my questions blowing unanswered in the wind, I’ll be remembering them.

I’ll also remember the talents given to me, and that I’m a man on a high from what I’ve just accomplished, for myself and my beloved ITV.  A penniless man with a £500 Mont Blanc pen in my pocket, one of the few things I’ve clung on to as a beacon of wealthier times.  And I’ll see myself as a man deciding positive-thinking is better than jumping, because he’s a man who knows his expertise might come in useful again in the days to follow.

So as for the black dog, he’s the one that’s fed to the sharks.

Liz Dawn Tribute – the story of nearly going on telly

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“No more telly!”

A strange thing happened yesterday – I was invited to appear on ITV’s Granada Reports, which just goes to show you wake up in the morning and never really know what to expect!

The story goes as follows:  I’d written a tribute in this diary to Liz Dawn and the ITV News Editor read it, then emailed to ask me to phone him.  I replied that I’ve got no credit but would be happy to talk so would he call me?  Sure enough, half an hour later the mobile rang and it was he; a nice young fellow who wanted to hear some of my anecdotes about Liz.  I duly obliged and he seemed suitably entertained, at least enough to invite me to appear live on air that night.  I must admit this was hugely flattering, both that he’d read my blog and that he wanted me to go on telly.  He was aware that I’m a homeless traveller and asked was I local enough to get to Manchester, or if not he’d arrange transport for me.  Again I was flattered but I declined his offer.

Later, I told Jayne about this unexpected invitation and she asked why the hell I turned it down.

“You’ve done TV before,” she said, “You’ve done the Southbank Show!”

“Yes,” I said, “and proved I’ve got a face more suited to radio.”

“I know,” she said, “but still.”

“Thanks,” I said.

People say the nicest things.  This reminds me of a time when I was talking to a young lady in Salford Quays who wanted to know why I was single:

“Because I’m fat and ugly,” I explained.

“Rubbish!” she cried, “You’re not fat!”

I often think about this and chuckle to myself.

But I digress.  That wasn’t the only reason I turned down the invitation.  I would’ve been nervous, yes, but also I was tired, my belly was empty, I was unshaven, I’d got no ironed shirts and I just didn’t feel up to it.  But more than anything I would’ve felt a bit of a fraud, appearing under the TV lights recounting happy memories of a brilliant servant to Coronation Street when right now I’m on my arse.  It sounds a bit plaintive, pathetic even, but that’s how it is, that’s how it would’ve felt, I can’t get past it, I just wasn’t up to it.

Also, I would’ve felt like a cheat because the show I’ve always loved is out of reach as I rarely get a signal on the Ottermobile’s TV – in fact I haven’t watched it for a while and I miss it like mad.  But that’s a price you pay for homelessness.

But if I learned anything about yesterday it was that my diary at least gets read, I have an audience, and that felt good.  It also felt good that though I was unable to appear on TV, or even to watch it, I’d paid my respects to Liz and made someone else chuckle as I retold stories I’d written for her, in what I like to think were some golden days of Coronation Street.  I also learned that my phone still rings.

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.

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.

Revenge Story – Ilkley Moor, 2017

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Cow and Calf, Ilkley Moor

The morning after the night before I felt a bit angry.  Not least because I’d had a haircut for the Storytelling Event at ITV London and for my journey back home, and it refused to go the way the barber got it to go.  Why does that happen?  Why will it only go the way the wind wants it to?  I should wear my hat and have done.

Talking of being windswept, I found myself on Ilkley Moor.  I’d been to this beautiful place lots of times; we even had Christmas dinner in the Cow and Calf pub one year and very nice it was too.  But this time I was alone and planning a long walk and a quiet stealth-camp overnight.  I bought a postcard for the mosaic which bore the lyric of the famous folk song, which I’ve always liked and often sung.  So I took my guitar and busked it to myself, and in doing so I really studied the lyric for the first time:

Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee, ah saw thee?
On Ilkla Mooar baht ‘at
Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee, ah saw thee?
Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee?
On Ilkla Mooar baht ‘at
On Ilkla Mooar baht ‘at
On Ilkla Mooar baht ‘at
Tha’s been a cooartin’ Mary Jane
Tha’s bahn’ to catch thy deeath o’ cowd
Then us’ll ha’ to bury thee
Then t’worms’ll come an’ eyt thee oop
Then t’ducks’ll come an’ eyt up t’worms
Then us’ll go an’ eyt up t’ducks
Then us’ll all ha’ etten thee
That’s wheear we get us ooan back

They don’t mince their words these Yorkshire folk, these chapel-goers who invented the song, wanting their revenge on one who went shagging Mary Jane up Ilkley Moor and forgot to wear his hat.  He caught his death of cold despite their warnings and to get their revenge for his ignorance they ate the ducks that ate the worms that ate him!  To me, shagging Mary Jane without a hat on doesn’t seem an offence meriting such harsh revenge.  In fact, shagging Mary Jane seems an admirable pursuit, and to die in doing so seems a heavenly way to die.  And I wonder why the chapel-goers are not so hard on Mary Jane, whose fate seems less certain?  What happened to her, and how come she didn’t die of cold since she wasn’t wearing her hat, or indeed her knickers?  I made a mental note to research the second verse to allay my concerns.

Anyway the reason I’m recording this is because I had an almighty laugh, all alone in my van, thinking of all the people who could eat the duck that ate the worms that ate ME, if I were the one shagging Mary Jane and dying of hypothermia because I didn’t wear my hat.  I even made a list in my notebook of all those who over the years have hurt me and might have me on their plate.

Some of whom I hope would enjoy dining out on me and burping in polite appreciation while raising a glass of Sauvignon blanc in my honour.  Some individuals I hope would get a mild indigestion.  Others I’d hope would get chronic diarrhoea and shit through the eye of a needle for several days, and end up with ring-sting.  But there are certain ones I’d rather like to die a painful death of food-poisoning, then my ghost could attend their funeral and dance on their grave.  And that would be MY revenge.

Again it sounds harsh but I make no apology, as indeed the chapel-goers were hardly contrite.  And I hope they felt as good as I did on dishing out fantastic cumupance.

The Art of Storytelling (plus a story synopsis)

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ITV/APG Event, London – L/R: Chris Goldson, John Whiston, Mark Charnock, Mark Bickerton

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“This story is about a character and what he or she wants, and why he or she can’t have it”

ONE MAN AND HIS DOG (synopsis) By Mr Otter

What does he want?  A job, a home and a life after van-life.

Why can’t he have it?  Because of his dog.  Because that’s how it is.

Backstory:  The dog has chewed up his career and he’s lost his home and all the sticks therein.

Story:  So he buys a van and lives in it, and travels in search of adventure, and of characters and stories to write.  But really he’s in search of himself, and ways to banish the dog and get his life back.  And he wants to find love and that’s something he can have.

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Structure:  Working on it.  But there has to be time to row your boat, have a smoke and muse.  What can you do?