“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” – the Story of a School Reunion

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If you’re a depressive, like me, there are loads of things you can do about it.  You can drink the blues away, only for them to come back in spades.  You can mope and feel sorry for yourself, only to make the blues turn ‘orange’.  You can feel that life’s not worth living, only to realise you’re not brave enough to take it away.  Or, you can say it is worth living, let’s look on the bright side of it and let’s be pro-active…

You can join a gym and conjure the magic of endorphins.  You can apply for jobs and tell those in a position to engage that you are there and you’re not going away and you’re interesting and yes, engaging.  You can look at things that are so easily taken for granted – your home if you’re lucky to have one, your talents if you’re blessed, and your nearest and dearest if you pause to consider you’re so much richer for having them.

Or, you can have a school reunion…

Since last September a beautiful woman and I (with the help of a few other special people) have been meeting, discussing, debating, planning and staying awake at night thinking about how nice it would be to meet those we schooled with 38 years ago.  How great it would be to get as many of them as possible in the same room, to see how they’ve done, how they now roll, and indeed how they now look.

So allow me to indulge and embroider the back-story, which for me and this story is vital – it provided some salient and profound “station stops” on my travels both geographical and psychological.  Loyal readers will know that last year was spent for the most part living on the Ottermobile, travelling (or often breaking down in) various parts of the UK.  I enjoyed and endured highs (seeing beautiful scenery and meeting wonderful people to write about) and lows (running out of tobacco and being attacked by a couple of hooded knob-heads).  But during that time a beautiful woman contacted me via Linkedin and we ‘chatted’ a while, not least about our school days together, and one day she suggested it might be a good idea to have a reunion.

So I said yes let’s chat more and gave her my number.  Some weeks later I was heading for North Wales and arranged to call in on her in Cheshire, where I took her out to dinner.  As we drank wine and reminisced, I mentioned the time I asked her out at school and she said “no” and that was the story of my life.  But anyway we of course stayed in touch and the issue of reuniting with our peers, ignited some weeks before, was now beginning to burn.

In the months to follow, with the aforementioned “committee” and social media playing their part, the fire burned ever more brightly and, last Saturday night, 60 or so of us convened for the Nantwich & Acton Grammar School Class of 1980 Reunion.  And what a night!

I realise that many of you readers are not NAGS Alumus but I want to describe some of what happened because for me as a writer it was fascinating, for me as a person it was enormously significant.  Of course there was music and food and lots of booze in a room crammed with people, but the room was also crammed with a great deal of laughter, reminiscence, wit and bantering exchanges of story, and above all love.  The buzz was incredible and the  energy amazing, proving that for those of us in our fifties there is still life, still action, and still the ability to behave like kids.  Inevitably some of us might’ve been nervous at first, or even scared, but these negative emotions soon gave way to joie de vive as we danced the night away and finished up linking arms and belting out Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.  And inevitably, as with every party, there had to be someone whose role in life is to be the class idiot or drunken dad-dancer or dubious town-crier…

For me as a writer I prefer to hide behind a script, but for me as a person I felt bound to say a few words, such was my enthusiasm and drunkenness and propensity to make a bloody fool of myself.  But it was all genuine, all meant, and all-important to say what I truly believed.  Yes I probably spoke too long, more than probably repeated myself, quite possibly tried to be funny and more than definitely slurred my words.  But more than definitely they were genuine.

Talking of which, there has been an entertaining and heartfelt aftermath on social media and to illustrate the point I’d like to borrow the words of one of my school-friends, which I think beautifully sum up how I and many other people now feel…

So here we are. It’s Monday night and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Saturday night. I was scared at first, but then overwhelmed to see everyone, then [I felt] euphoria. Mandy, Mark, Kay and Dave…thank you for a fantastic night, you have no idea how much you have touched me. Ruth, I cannot thank you enough…. you found me when I didn’t know I even existed. So many wonderful people to meet again. I’m so sorry if I didn’t get to speak to you all. I regret not spending more time with those that I did. 48 hours on and I have an overwhelming melancholia because for now I can’t see you all, crazy to learn after 38 years that I miss all of you so much. All that I ask is that we see each other sooner rather than later and that life treats you all well until we next meet. There is a big hole in my life that you all fill and I didn’t realise it until now. I wish you all only the best of life and hope to see you again very soon – D.

I am touched by D’s words, and even more touched to glean that in all the aftermath there are ongoing stories and sub-plots in development, stories and sub-plots that began nearly forty years ago and will unravel for years to come.

As I say, school reunions and the descriptions of such are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I needed to post this because it was such a massive deal to me after such a difficult year and it was great to see that so many people looked so well, behaved so well and have clearly done so well, and that being 54 doesn’t mean there’s nothing left in the tank, nothing left to say and nothing left to do.

So thank you for indulging me because it really did me the world of good.  The year has started well, I’ve been pro-active, I’ve joined the gym, my career does look like it’s being rekindled.  But that isn’t all the story, because I have a confession to make, a sub-plot to bring to the surface…

I had an ulterior motive in giving my number to the beautiful woman, because I wanted to ask her out again.  And this time, after 38 years, the answer was “yes”, and that’s the greatest and happiest reunion of all.  Because this is a story not just about nostalgia, or about celebrating and looking on the bright side of life, it’s actually a tender and profound love-story.

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“The Trial” – a festive story of desperation and resilience

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Ho ho ho!

Franz Kafka wrote The Trial in 1914 and it was published posthumously in 1925.  For those unfamiliar, it’s about a man arrested for some crime he isn’t aware of and prosecuted by some remote and inaccessible system he doesn’t know of.  My story won’t be as ground-breakingly, heart-breakingly and darkly brilliant, but I cite it because it demonstrates how wonderfully portentous writers like Kafka were, and how horribly accurate were my own premonitions earlier this year about the lives of those just about managing.

My story is about a character called Mike – yes let’s call him that because that’s what someone called him.  For Mike, life is one long trial, and here I’ll tell his tale with some deliberation and respect for his feelings, because he writes a blog and has realised a large percentage of his readers seem to be lawyers, a fact which gives him pleasure and paranoia in equal measure.

***

“Mike is neither sure of the crime he might’ve committed nor why his life has turned upside-down, but he senses deep down that he must’ve erred in some wicked way for it to turn out like this, where life is just one bad thing after another, one trial, one tribulation, after another.  He searches his soul and recalls stealing a pork pie from Tesco when he was seven, and more recently signing an exemption from prescription charges because he was broke and needed anti-depressants, and he wonders if these are the reasons for his downfall and prosecution.  But in his defence and in more cheerful moments he sees himself as no saint nevertheless a decent, caring and honest man…

At this moment in time he’s claiming Jobseekers’ Allowance and has been dutifully and assiduously obeying the rules by applying – but not usually getting – jobs.  Then a number of weeks ago there was a miracle, when he was offered a day’s work.  The company who offered him the work will be nameless (given the legally eagle eyes are on Mike’s blog) but he gratefully accepted its contractual terms.  Honest to the last, he declared this miracle to the Jobseekers people knowing that legally they would dock his Allowance and legally he was bound to accept.  He did this because he is honest and he did this because he believed that while a day’s work wasn’t much, it might beget more work and soon he wouldn’t have to rely on the State and he could pay his taxes.  He also believed in good faith that a fair day’s work would beget a fair day’s pay come the end of the month.

But sometimes mortals like Mike are up against a system he can’t control, can’t challenge and can’t even understand.  And that’s why today he learned his invoice hasn’t for some reason gone through the system and he won’t be paid till the end of December.  Now some would argue that at least Mike will, eventually, be paid, but others would surely wonder how this can happen, how this can happen to a man like Mike who’s desperate and who won’t be receiving his Jobseekers Allowance because he’s been honest and will therefore have to go a whole month, the month where Christmas happens to fall, with nothing.  And there’s seemingly nothing he can do about it.

Again, because he fears the legal eagles are circling, Mike is nervous of having his story told, but decides to let me tell it because he’s nothing to lose and, after all, he’s only telling the truth.  And furthermore he’s feeling not a little paranoid and disappointed (it’s worth adding) that the company is one for which he’s spilled blood, sweat and tears over his working life.  So perhaps one could forgive his paranoia that somebody somewhere within this remote and inaccessible system is testing his limits.

One thing Mike does have is someone he loves.  She talks to him often about life and how it tries us.  He talks to her about depression and how it tries him, how he feels like an elastic band that’s being stretched, how he resists the tension but how sometimes, because he knows something about physics and even more about human feelings, he fears he’s going to snap.  In plain fact an elastic band, like a human being, can only take so much.

Mike knows she and others are there to love and support him, and he also recognises there are people much worse off – people who have nobody, people who live under arches, people who don’t even have a decent sleeping bag, a vehicle, a metal roof over their heads.  He knows it’s going to be harder for them this winter, and understands why they’ll resort to alcohol, drugs and crime.  He understands this because he knows they’ll become desperate.  And he now understands that being honest doesn’t necessarily pay, in fact it doesn’t appear to pay at all.  So what’s the point in avoiding alcohol, drugs and crime?  Why not let alcohol or drugs numb the pain?  Why not pinch a pork pie if you’re starving?  It’s the unlawful law of the homeless and it’s how they’re supposed to behave.

Mike’s done some research on the homeless problem.  He’s read a story about a man who was up for some petty crime and begged to be sent to prison so he’d have warmth and a roof over his head.  But the judge felt that would be too easy for him, so presided that more time on the streets was punishment more befitting; better to have the streets full of homeless people who can be moved on, than prisons bursting their seams with criminals.

And he’s read in the paper recently about people on Universal Credit who’re forced to live on cornflakes and tell their kids there’ll be no Christmas presents this year.  With this in mind, Mike met his beautiful daughter for a coffee and she was paying.  He told her there would be gifts for his grandchildren but they wouldn’t be much.  For that he was banking on the pay that was due for his honest days’ work.  But now, with today’s news upper in his mind, he’s going to have to tell her it will have to wait until the new year.  And it will break his heart.”

***

So that’s the story.  When I interviewed Mike he was at first reticent, scared even, to divulge.  But this was more than paranoia about the legal eagles reading his words – it was about dignity.  He doesn’t feel ashamed of his story and he certainly doesn’t want pity.  Why should he, he says, ask for pity from others when he refuses to pity himself?  All he wants, after some deliberation, is to tell his story, get things off his chest, tell it like it is and that will be that.

Because while Mike might be made of elastic he’s not one easy to snap.  With dignity he’ll go on displaying innate magnanimity, he’ll go on resisting the tension, he’ll go on being resilient, and he’ll go on believing that while he can’t fight the system and can’t understand why this has happened to him, he’ll get over this famine and enjoy any feast that’s put in front of him, come Christmas and beyond.  And yes, ho ho ho, he’ll manage, somehow, to laugh in the face of adversity.

Franz Kafka, arguably, might not have been so forthcoming with happy endings.

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!

“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.”

Fallon Hard Times

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Oh my God there are two of her!

Poor Michael Fallon, having to resign because of his alleged impropriety.  I say poor, because while I don’t condone his alleged behaviour, he’ll have a very uncertain future, which is something this writer knows a lot about…

Having become unemployed, he’ll be forced out of his posh mansion and use the last of his savings either to find sheltered housing or buy a campervan.  To cover the ignominy of his fall from grace, he’ll say it’s a project and he’ll write about his experiences travelling the land and meeting interesting folk, and he’ll do this until one of three eventualities eventually happen: 1) his van could break down, 2) he could break down, or 3) all his money will run out and he’ll be forced to park up on a friend’s drive and stay put, shitting in a bucket and freezing his balls off.

If he’s lucky he’ll have lots of family and friends who’re kind enough to help, but whether or not this is the case he’ll be forced to apply for Jobseeker’s Allowance.  Eventually he’ll get his £74 a week, which is very difficult but not impossible to “Just About Manage” on.  But then, he’ll realise that the insurance on his campervan (£92 a month) will mean on average he’ll be living on £4 a day.  If he smokes, he’ll be forced to give up, if he drinks, he’ll be forced to give that up too.

With no affordable vices (and having given up the alleged vice of groping women’s knees at the dinner table) he’ll become very miserable and, after applying for several jobs in his line and receiving no response, then applying for crap jobs for which he’s overqualified and told he’s been unsuccessful because he’s overqualified, his misery will be exacerbated.  Then, he might learn that his former boss, our Theresa and Christ I do hope there’s only one of her, plans to make it nigh on impossible for people like Michael to qualify for benefits.

The poor man will then face a number of options including: 1) to sell his van and numb the pain with crack, 2) to resort to living on the streets, and 3) to jump off the nearest cliff…

Now as Michael readily admits, he’s erred in the past, but hey, haven’t we all?  So does he really deserve to be punished in the way I’ve described?  Some will say yes he deserves to have his balls frozen off while others will opine that everybody deserves a second chance.

Frankly I think he deserves to have his balls frozen off, not just because he’s an alleged groper but because he’s a fucking Tory.  But then again I might be betraying my naivety here.  For all I know, he might be a very rich man who doesn’t need to buy a clapped-out campervan to put a roof over his head, who doesn’t need to apply for crap jobs for which he’s overqualified, and who doesn’t need to go round the country shitting in a bucket and trying to convince everyone he’s not so bad after all.