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

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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.

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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.

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.

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.