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.

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Best of Both Worlds – The Dubious Art of Finding a Story

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It’s not so straightforward to approach people these days.  I’m not saying folk are unfriendly, by and large the world turns around because most of us are law-abiding, decent and civil.  But with the increase of crime comes the rise of suspicion, so when you make a beeline for a complete stranger in a pub, deep down you might expect the cold shoulder, a mouthful of abuse or even a smack in the mouth.  So you’d think I’d be cautious, but to be honest I’m not.  Not entirely.

All those years ago when I was interviewed by Health Unlimited for the job in Rwanda I was asked how I’d cope in a dangerous place and/or situation, and I used the analogy that as a writer I see two pubs in the town square – one looks quiet, the other sounds rowdy.  I choose the rowdy one because that could be more interesting; I might get a story and a character with my pint.  And that was the case in Leeds recently.  The story I found isn’t the greatest ever told but I’ll use it to illustrate my point.

But first, you don’t find stories sitting on your arse, and I’m not a great fan of researching on the internet, which to me is the last resort.  You have to market yourself and I find the pub has the best footfall in terms of setting out my stall.  And there I will feed carrots to the horses and get the stories from their mouths.

So I’m in a rough pub in Leeds, where I order a pint and casually take in the customers.  There’s a ladies’ darts match on and I note the tattoos, the hairdos or attempts thereof, the cleavage, the banter and frankly the admirable ability to find the treble twenty.  It’s a weekly event they practise for, dress up for, then look forward to post-match drinks, fags and trays of meat paste sandwiches and limp lettuce.  But that’s not all.  In a corner there’s a couple of fellas playing ukelele and banjo, singing folk songs.  In another there’s an elderly couple mouthing the words, probably inaccurately, between sips.  At the bar there’s a passionate debate happening for three tough-looking guys, the crux of which sounds like would Leeds go up this season and would re-ownership of Elland Road bode well?  I feel like adding my views but resist temptation because I’ve seen someone to pick on – the biggest and roughest-looking man of the considerable bunch of clientele.

He’s on his own right now but I sense he’s waiting for someone or something to happen.  He’s a big guy looking 50 but probably younger, covered in body art.  One of the tattoos, a serpent, coils around his neck and into his bald head, finishing at the fontanelle.  In his nose he wears a ring and in his ears are those big holey things I don’t know the name of but remind me of the Maasai I’ve seen in Kenya and Tanzania. His considerable torso is covered with a denim jacket with the sleeves ripped off, showing his impressively-painted guns.  I ask if this seat is spare and he just nods.

After a few slurps of my Timothy Taylor I finally manage to get a word.  Riskily I tell him I’m not a local and he tells me he knows, he has me down as a traveller.  He’s clocked my bag, he’s clocked me scraping together shrapnel at the bar and he’s figured I’m on my uppers.  I confirm this, and tell him I’m living in a van.  He seems to relax now, and even commends my story, saying he’s done most of the UK and Europe on his motorbike, a Harley.  I know nothing about bikes but explain my brother had one, and he’s impressed until I add that it was a Suzuki 250.  Sensing there’s not much mileage in my brother’s bike I push it maybe and ask if he’s a Hell’s Angel.  He shakes his head, insisting he just likes bikes and he also likes free-living and having sex, and with a tap of his nose he adds that he doesn’t work.  His name is Craig but people call him Bex.  I want to push further and ask why Bex, and how he makes his living, but he begins his story so I hang fire…

He’s waiting for his wife.  Well, she isn’t his wife, not any more, she’s his first wife and now his mistress, his current wife is playing darts.  She knows he’s having an affair with his ex, and his ex knows he’s got a wife at home, and knows that she knows.  It’s all hunky dory for Bex, he’s got the best of both worlds.  At this point he asks if I want another and I decline, saying I’m driving, but he insists that if I refuse he will finish up falling out with me.  It’s the first hint of aggression and I realise this could go either way.  When he returns with three pints (one for his mistress who he says has just texted to say she’s on her way) he tells me more about both his worlds: the bikes, the bike crashes, the metal pin in his left leg thanks to some knob-head in a BMW on Snake Pass, the brawls, the women, the sex.  There’s still an edge to his pitch and I kind of hope his mistress would turn up and change the dynamic.  Then he asks if I’m married, so I tell him separated, and he asks how I go on for sex?

Sometimes in unpredictable situations I find self-deprecation can help – it can throw the the other person, surprise them into submission, make them see you’re no threat, or even make them laugh.  So I go for telling him I don’t get lucky, and even if I did I’m not sure I’d be any good at it anymore – I’d have to pretend that were someone else.  The gag is not mine it belongs to the Bob Monkhouse estate, and Bex laughs so I’m cool with robbing a dead man if it achieves the change of gear I’m after.  But lurking beneath the laughter and testosterone and clouding the beer I sense another story, if I dare ask.  Because there’s a sadness in his worlds and a depression in his eyes that I can see; it takes one to know one…

… Bex was born Craig B (name withheld) in Scarborough, where his father was a fisherman his mother a seamstress.  It wasn’t a happy marriage.  His father was a chronic drunk; when he wasn’t at sea he was in the pub and when he wasn’t slurping pints he was beating his wife.  One night the beatings got out of hand and his mother lashed out in self-defence, but this only provoked his fury and he clouted her over the head with the coal shovel, killing her… and into that beautiful world was born Craig.  As his father did time and subsequently died inside, Craig was brought up by his Aunty and abused for years by his Uncle.  Then at the age of fifteen he ran away and never went back.  To this day he won’t go near Scarborough.  He’ll travel the world, but not there – too many haunting memories…

I’ve summarised the story but you get the picture – this gargantuan man, looking for all the world the toughest you’d encounter, reduced to near-tears as he unburdens to me, a complete stranger he’s only met one pint ago.  And I don’t really know how I’ve done it, how I’ve managed to get him to offload.  Or maybe it isn’t me at all, maybe I’ve just picked on someone who really needs to tell?   Anyway, not abruptly, after a bit more chat (you can’t just jump up and leave when someone’s borne his soul) I say it’s nice to talk to him but I really must get off and find somewhere to stealth-camp.  And thankfully he’s fine with that, so I wonder if he’s had his fill of emptying his closet of skeletons.

As I empty my bladder before heading out, I ponder his story and its ratio of fact to fiction.  Did his father really kill his mother while she was carrying him?  Did he ever meet his father, look into the eyes of his mother’s slaughterer?  Was it really a coal shovel?  Does he really own a Harley?  Is his left leg really made of metal thanks to the knob-head in a BMW?  Is his wife really throwing arrows in the bar?  Does the first-wife-cum-mistress exist and is she really on her way?

Then as I head for the exit I look back to our corner.  And there is Bex grinning over at me and waving, and at his side is a very attractive blonde, sipping her pint, smiling and also giving a wave.  Whether she’s his wife or ex-wife-cum-mistress I’ll never know.  But I leave it to my imagination as I head for my van, passing a beautiful gleaming Harley Davidson on the way.