“Suicide” – a Story of Two Worlds Colliding

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The library is full of stories but not just in the books.  While I’m having a warm or doing the crossword or writing, I’m also listening.  Today there was a toddlers’ group singing songs like “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.”  Nearer to me, however, there were two men in their sixties whispering hellos.

“How are you?” asked the first.

“Not so good,” said the second, “my Grandson took his own life yesterday.”

The first man said nothing, not because he was being rude but because, though there were millions on the shelves around him, he couldn’t find the right words.

“24,” added the second man.

That’s all I heard, a tragic and tear-jerking blurb that as a writer got me wanting the rest of the story but as a human-being wanting to know what’s wrong with this world the little singing children will grow up with.

As they continued to warble “If you’re happy” I wondered what drove the 24-year-old to suicide, what made a man with the years stretching out in front of him end his days?  What can be done about this awful state of affairs where the suicide rate seemingly continues to rise?  If you read the Office of National Statistics it’s a very grim tale in this regard.  And finally it got me asking grave questions of myself: though I sometimes think I have nothing to live for, is my life really so bad?  And if it isn’t, should I be ashamed of myself for being depressed and writing such downbeat prose over the past six months?

So in sparing a thought and lighting a candle for this young man I never knew and his grieving family I will never know, I should also be grateful for the gifts I do have and the thing I do know; that despite it all I am still happy.  I know it, and I would really like to show it.

 

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Tales of the Riverbank

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While the Ottermobile’s been static I’ve been doing a lot of walking, which is supposed to clear the mind.

I’ve rambled along miles of the Shropshire Union Canal and many more of the River Weaver, and still haven’t seen an otter.  I’ve also failed to meet my old friend Alfie, who I hear has been worried about me and hasn’t been able to get hold of me.  He and I used to trek for miles, or fish, on canals and rivers back in the good old days and I know he still likes to take a constitutional for leisure.

My walks are for leisure too, but they’re also to fill the time for I am now the archetypal tramp.  If I’m not seen tramping along the waterways or huddled in a corner of the library for a warm and a nap, I’m to be seen on a bench in the town square, watching the world go by or writing or pretending to do a crossword I’ve already done.

It’s hard not to feel self-conscious at times because though I don’t (I think) look like a vagrant, if I meet someone’s eye it feels like they’re judging me; they see a man on his own whiling away his day, a man with nothing to do, an “idle spectator” of the world.

But that’s not true.  My mind isn’t empty at all, it’s always abuzz with ideas, many of them good ones.  It’s brimming with story and character, it’s still searching for new words and raring to put them down lest someone should be impressed enough to dare to give the author a job.

Talking of new words, one of the friends I made on the road, Trevor, offered me this:

Gongoozle – (v) to idly spectate, especially canal boats and canal activities.

I suppose that given the amount of time I’ve spent on the canals of late, and the miles I’ve covered and the many boats I’ve seen, I am your tramp and gongoozler.  Yet as I say, I don’t idly spectate, I talk as well, I introduce myself to those I encounter, in the search for new friends and more importantly a story.

The other day I came across Harry, a 70-year-old who calls himself a boater.  Hailing from Manchester, he retired from the police force fifteen years ago following the death of his wife.  He sold his house, bought a barge and has lived on the cut ever since, meandering from Audlem to Wrenbury and beyond and back, loving the wildlife and the back of beyond.  He has the biggest garden in England, because his garden is England.  He likes to visit real ale pubs and favours The Wickstead for its goat curry.  He knows everything there is to know about CAMRA pubs and everything there is to know about the ales they have on tap.  Most important of all, his time will run out before his money.

He asked me what I do and I said I’m very similar – I enjoy the freedom of tramping, I deeply love the back of beyond and I have taken very much to gongoozling.  I have often wondered how different life would’ve been had I chosen a clapped-out boat rather than a clapped-out van.  Knowing my luck it would’ve probably sunk.  But unlike him, my money ran out before my life.

“Do you like a pint?” Harry asked.

“Oh yes,” I said.

“You look like you do,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Next time I’m in this neck of the woods I’ll buy you one,” he promised.

“Thanks,” I said again, swapping numbers.  Harry the boater in his green beret keeping the warmth in his head because he’s as bald as the coots that bob in his wake.

And as he chugged away it felt good to make a new friend.  It also felt good to know that Harry isn’t lonely.  I asked what he’ll do for Christmas and he said he’ll be happy to celebrate it by himself – he’ll go to church, he’ll have all the trimmings and he’ll get quietly pissed.

“And will you stay warm?” I asked.

“Oh aye,” he said with a mischievous grin, ” I’ll have me log-burner going and me chestnuts well and truly roasted.”

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!

Down and Out in Crewe and Nantwich

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Not much has changed since my hero wrote this book.  When the wheels fell off my van, as it were, I travelled back to my roots to rebuild my life and career, but to do so I needed help from the State.  I documented my signing on with some humour and compliments to the service provided, but once again Big Mouth Struck Again…

I’m sure I’ll go into more detail next week but today I can’t really be bothered to write at length – I just don’t feel like it because the black dog is back in the room.

In brief, they (meaning the State) said the change of care-of address would be seamless, it wouldn’t disrupt my claim at all.  But after a fortnight with nothing paid I used a friend’s landline to speak to them… after being on hold for what felt like more than a fortnight.  Turned out the signing-on day I’d been given was wrong, so I’ll have to wait another week before the system can pay me any money.  My plea that I haven’t got so much as the price of a cup of tea, and I need to travel to Manchester for important potential work meetings, and this administrative error was not my fault, met with sympathy, I admit, but there was nothing the lady on the phone could do in terms of any emergency payment.  Nothing for it but to sit tight and wait.  Or starve.

So what does one do to get a cup of tea?  Well I guess I am one of the lucky ones in that I have very good and kind friends.  People like homeless James, to whom my readers may remember I gave a bed in the Ottermobile for a night, and others I’ve met on my travels, are less fortunate.  I have, among others, my brother Podge and my friends Gary, Janet and their lovely family.  For days now I’ve “stealth-camped” in their drive and they’ve fed me and given me wine to keep me going.  What on earth I’d do without them I don’t know, because the black dog has been scratching at the door and threatening to chew me up.  There is nothing in the State system, no boxes to tick, to process that particular claim.

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.

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

 

The Night I Was Attacked

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Skipton Castle taken some weeks ago

The photo isn’t part of the story, but it’s pertinent in terms of my being an Englishman and my Ottermobile my castle.  And when his castle is attacked, the Englishman will defend it.  Which is what happened to this Englishman the other night…

I’d travelled north via Teesside and Tyneside and needed a break as tiredness can kill.  Before hitting the A193 coast road I found a countryside lay-by – not much around but a couple of farms.  Wasn’t the most picturesque I’d ever chosen, it was very darkened by tall hedges, but it would do.  It was a narrow lane and I was a little worried lest a heavy farm vehicle needed to get past.  But it would do.  I kept telling myself that.  I’d come to rely on intuition with all things stealth-camping, and this time intuitively I felt something amiss, so was not altogether relaxed.  I should’ve listened to intuition…

Just as I was prepping my bed and drawing curtains etc, a car’s headlights lit the gloom.  Nothing odd about that, except that the driver seemed to take an exceptional interest.  As he crept by and disappeared up the lane behind me, I thought that was that, and resumed my ablutions.

About five minutes later, another car, this time behind me, but as it passed I realised it was the same car, an Audi I think, and I could pick out that there was more than one passenger within.  Again I thought, I hoped, that was that… except it soon returned the other way, and this time there was the obligatory peeping of the horn.  It’s a joke I’d heard many times and usually bored me, but something nagged me.

Taking the precaution of leaving on my shorts and T-shirt, I eventually bedded down in my mummy bag.  Nothing more happened for maybe half an hour, and as the moments ticked by, my mind and body allowed themselves to relax and I must’ve drifted into an uneasy slumber.

God knows how long later, I was woken by a violent rocking of the van, hands thumping against my windows and much shouting and laughter.  It’s not easy to get out of a sleeping bag quickly, but I knew I had to.

“Fuck off!” I shouted.

“Fuck off!” came the mocking reply.

Shaking with fear, I pulled back a curtain and could pick out the faces of two young men, maybe twenty years old, grinning back at me.

“I’ll call the police!” I said.

“I’ll call the police!” came the mimicry.

Realising the law posed no deterrent, I tried reason.  Winding the window down an inch, I said “Look lads, I’m homeless, I’m just trying to get some kip.  Fuck off, yea?”

“You fucking cut me up!” one of them proclaimed.

“No I didn’t!  When?”

“Back there.  You coulda killed me and me girlfriend!”

In retrospect I would know this was absurd.  My Ottermobile can only do 50 and I can’t remember overtaking a single vehicle, let alone cutting someone up, especially a car as powerful as his.  But in the heat and the ludicrousness of the situation I could only deny his claim.  And as he continued to remonstrate, the other man chipping in his support, I knew this wasn’t going away.

Anger boiling now, I struggled into my boots and prepared to disembark.  “He’s getting out!” I heard the smaller man say.

“Good!” said the other.  So now I knew this would be tricky.  Somehow though, through a mixture of anger and fear, I managed to collect some thought – opening the side-door would give them an in, whereas the driver’s door would mean they’d have to move back, giving me vital room to manoeuvre.

As I emerged, fearing a beating, I quickly realised the smaller one was disarmed to see I’m a big bloke.  Knowing I had to seize the advantage, I sent him backwards and to the ground with a violent shove.  But I wasn’t quick enough for the other one and received a smack on the nose.  As I reeled back into the side of the van, I now saw the two girls in the back seat of the car, grinning spectators at the ringside, and knew this was the sport of impressing the lasses.

But I wasn’t prepared to go down.  As the smaller man was now on his feet and coming at me, I swung out at the bigger one and cracked him on the jaw.  This caused the smaller one to retreat again, allowing me to grab the crowbar I keep in the foot-well.  Brandishing this, I said “Come again and you get this!”

“Fuck off!” said the bigger man.

I would later wonder where this came from, but quite honestly I went a bit mad, flailing the bar at the dark air between us, lashing out and not caring if it cracked a skull or two.”He’s fucking off his head!” I heard one of the girls say, “Leave it Tize!” or some such monicker.

“Alright mate!” said the smaller man.  Without a word, the bigger man gave me a sign that it was over and retreated to his Audi.  And seconds later they’d gone, and it was over.  Or was it?

Bewildered at what just happened, panting and shaking like a dog passing the turd of its lifetime, I put the bar down and climbed back into the van.  Never more did I need a drink, but the Ottermobile was dry.  A coffee then?  But my hands were too shaky to pour from my water bottle.  Making sure the doors were locked, I opened all my curtains and got fully-dressed, knowing sleep was now impossible lest they came back.  Would they come back?  Would they return with their mates instead of girlfriends?  With their brothers, their fathers?  All this was churning around my head.  Would I call the police?  Did I want the attention?  I’m a vagrant, a traveller and stealth-camper, I’ve got enough problems getting through each day, did I need more?

And so I just sat, smoking chains of my last tobacco, finally managing to make coffee, going over and over the events, dabbing the cut over the eye with cotton wool.  The whole thing must’ve lasted maybe two minutes, but though I’m not one for cliche and hyperbole, it felt like a lot longer.  And why did it happen?  What did I do to deserve it?  I’m just a normal bloke down on his luck, wanting a quiet life, a quiet night’s kip.  Why pick on me?  Because I’m vulnerable, a guy on his own, in a country lane conducive to a punch-up?  And could this have been worse?  What if they too were armed?  With a knife?  A gun?  Had I come close to serious injury or even death?  What if I’d cracked them with the crowbar, injured or killed them?  What if I ended up in prison?

“Something needs to happen,” Podge said all those weeks ago, and we talked about it, knowing this kind of thing was what was meant.  This kind of thing that I always expected, feared, but hoped would never happen.  Now it had.

And where did my anger and violence come from?  I’m not a violent man, never have been, so why was I suddenly brandishing a lethal weapon?  Why did I even have a crowbar to begin with?  Was this some deep psychological flaw?  Am I really a thug?  Could I live with that horrible thought?  Why do I hate myself?

But of course all this is not rational.  As the hours and days have ticked by following this incident, and as the cut over my eye has scabbed, I’ve been more balanced in my view.  It was down to chance.  The young men were trying to impress their lasses, it was nothing personal, I just happened to be there, and seen as a bit of sport in a boring rural arena.  The big one had got his punch in and would brag about it to his mates.  Perhaps they both got laid that night as a trophy for their valour.  Perhaps one day I will laugh about the whole thing?  Perhaps I’ll embellish the tale, telling friends there were half a dozen of them?  Maybe even ten of the fuckers?

I probably won’t, because it was an episode I don’t want to see a repeat of, an episode that left me thoroughly depressed, seeing orange rather than seeing stars.  And it left me knowing the real reason for my paroxysm of violence:

I’m fed up of the world dishing its shit.  If I’m sickened by the injustice and the affront to liberty, there will inevitably come a time when I say enough is enough.  Whatever is my “castle”, be it a mansion, a posh apartment in Salford Quays, a clapped-out van with dodgy bearings, a bundle of rags in a shop doorway, I have every right to defend it.  And finally I’m left with the realisation that though in the scheme of things I have nothing, I will do everything to keep it.