Homeless in Manchester – The Story of Paul and The Big Issue

IMG_1702

The beautiful Royal Exchange Theatre Building

After the meeting at the Royal Exchange we were due to meet my old friends Kim, Kelly, Karl and Wendy for drinks on Salford Quays.  As I left the building and its wonderful salubriousness (it’s one of my favourite theatre buildings) I was approached by a Big Issue seller.  I confess that in days gone by these were a bit of a pain in the arse – it seemed you couldn’t walk 100 yards without being accosted – but given my current plight, my views have radically changed.  So much so, that I really wanted to reach into my pocket but knew I couldn’t, so made my apology.

Neither surprisingly perhaps nor rudely, the seller glanced at my attire (I’d shaved and smartened for our meeting) and said it was fine, if I hadn’t got a few coppers I hadn’t got a few coppers.  But it broke my heart to know that what he was really thinking was “you lying bastard, that’s what they all say.”  So I felt bound to explain that I’d just been to an ‘interview’.

“I might not look it,” I said, “but I’m homeless too.”

“Right,” he said.

“No really,” I insisted, “I live in a van.”

“I live in a tent,” he said.

In lieu of money I rolled him a cigarette and asked for his story.  He was Paul, 45, born, bred and educated in Salford.  He left school with decent qualifications and decided to get a trade in the construction industry.  He was earning good money as a roofer when he met his future wife, so settled down, had three kids, a budgie, a labrador and was very happy.

He’d always played guitar and performed with a good few pub bands down the years, doing classic rock covers.  Being in bands always attracted the girls and perhaps inevitably he had an affair.  His wife found out and chucked him onto the street.  He had no family (his parents both died during the above story) so he dossed on various friends’ settees, yet still ticked along because he always had his work…

Until the day he lost his job.  He managed to get a few temporary contracts in the industry, but then they dried up during the period of austerity.  Feeling depressed, he became “a pain to live with” and increasingly found his friends were making excuses as to why he could no longer stay with them.  And so with little money, no home, fewer friends, his guitar sold and an alcohol dependency, he took to the streets.

As I listened to his tale and his means to exist (he buys the Big Issue for £1.25 a copy, sells for £2.50 and needed another eight quid to break even that day) I reflected on what a decent bloke he was, and recalled others I’ve met on my travels who were in the same place, and all bewildered at how quick and seemingly irreversible the downward spiral goes.

And I looked at my own plight, at my nice clothes bought in wealthier times, and realised how close I could be to being Paul.  And I thought about the riches of Manchester (a place that makes you want to feel successful) and its well-heeled buzz of office folk and business owners.  How ironic that the homeless should be here, unable to afford to drink in the posh bars yet hanging around them because there’s a slim chance of alms.

Then as I met with my friends I considered how lucky I am; I have a safety net in the kindness of people who love me, people who care, people who are friends.  Yes we too went to swanky bars in Media City, places where I’ve put hundreds of pounds over the bar in former times and hopefully will again.  But looking around at the rich clientele, I couldn’t help but think that if I scratched beneath the surface I could find something altogether different.  It’s quite possible that any of them could find themselves like me, relying on the State and on friends and loved-ones.  Or ultimately they could find themselves like Paul, who’s gone beyond relying on the State – he now relies on the kindness of strangers.  And in future when I walk the streets of Manchester or anywhere, I’ll be far more mindful not to be so judgemental.

 

Advertisements

The Night I Was Attacked

IMG_1606

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.

Important Landmarks

IMG_2275

It’s my son Dominic’s birthday today and it’s scary that my second-eldest is pushing thirty.  Doesn’t seem that long since we were playing football in the park, my teaching a three-year-old toddler my silky skills.  Now he’s in Omagh with his beautiful girlfriend Zoe and I wish I were there too… but I’m stuck in my lay-by waiting for a welder, and I often told him you should always respect your welders.  Sorry I can’t be there son; I love you and here’s wishing you many happy returns.

Talking of landmarks, it’s now 75 days and nights since I started my off-grid project.  Yes I’ve treated myself to the odd pub steak or burger or haggis, and more than the odd pint of best as I’ve chatted up the locals.  And yes I’ve been called a paedophile by teenage thugs, been tooted at by tossers in white vans assuming I’m getting laid, or ran the gauntlet of fist-fighting gypsies… but on the whole it’s been a peaceful 75 days and I can’t help reflecting that the most stressful times have been at the mercy of bureaucracy and mechanical law.  The same problems everyone has, or at least every motorist – how do I get my car through its MoT?  How do I find a reputable, reliable garage?  How do I get a welder?  In other words, it’s more stressful on-grid than off.

When I’m off-grid it seems to me that by and large folk aren’t aware or don’t care who’s sleeping in his van in a lay-by or across from their house.  Is this because they’re too busy worrying about their MoTs?  Or their job, or whose arse to lick in order to keep their job, or who to befriend on Facebook because there’s a chance it might help keep their job…?  Or is it because actually people here are laissez-faire; they’re happy to let people get on with their life, however alien, as long as it doesn’t infringe on theirs?  I truly hope it’s the latter.  So anyway finding a lay-by and making sure I eat, I’m safe, and I get a good night’s kip has been far less stressful than I anticipated… so far at least.

The second point I’d like to make is that though I’m only a fifth of the way through my project/experiment/adventure, I’m finding it really helps manage depression.  This is because I live with the freedom to be where I want when I want.  I’m seeing some beautiful places and meeting some fascinating people with stories to tell.  I’m learning about them and I’m learning about myself.  I’m walking hundreds and hundreds of miles of the beautiful British coastline and countryside.  I’m making a cathartic journey through my past, writing what I want to write with freedom and without constraint.  I’ve seen friends and family I haven’t seen in ages due to my selfish and blinkered ascent of the career ladder in order to be pushed off it.  And most importantly and profoundly of all I’ve reunited with my beautiful daughter and met my grandchildren.

In short I’ve journeyed to what’s important and much of this, I believe, has been made possible because I made an alternative life-choice, went to “another place”.  And to the doubters who asked “what could possibly go wrong?” I say that so far nothing has gone wrong, bar the ball-ache of red-tape that you have every single day.  There’s a long way to go, both in time and in mileage… but so far, my friends, so good.  On this important day I reflect on all those years bringing up my kids.  And how quick time marches and how vital it is to make the most of it and make the right choices.

Depression

So, depression.  Another serial-killer.  A far more potent and epidemic than the Poundland Terrorists.  I’d intended to write a passionate study of the black dog today, but it seems churlish and selfish when the weather is so beautiful.  Woke up on Day2 in Media City to birdsong and bright sunshine through my windscreen.  Decided to fill a bucket and have a shower naked in the open-air.  It felt invigorating, amazing, though I’m not sure those tipping up for work at the Bupa offices over the road would agree.

The Ottermobile boasts a toilet but it’s a tight squeeze, if you will.  I’ll spare you further detail as this is a blog, not a logbook.  But there’s space to do what I want and to get clean afterwards.  It’s important.  I’m quite anal when it comes to cleanliness of the arse.  I hope yesterday’s picture proves as much.  I’m getting bogged down.

Suffice it to say that I’m finding a rhythm to my new life.  Not a routine, I leave that for the employed.  A rhythm, in a 4metre square house on wheels.  I slept well again, but realised I haven’t yet woken with an erection since I embarked.  Good though, because it’d be a waste of space on my own, and space is at a premium.  I hope it’s temporary, nothing more sinister than it getting used to its new surroundings, and not because it’s a member of the over-50s club.

I have another remarkable realisation, that I’ve stopped banging my head on cupboards.  That’s good too, because I need to keep these marbles; I finished The Guardian Cryptic Crossword in 30minutes, a sure sign of that being so.  I smiled in self-satisfaction that I’d given the compiler a good match.  It’s good to smile, even smugly I guess.  And I’m smug to know I’m going for a glass of wine with friends in this beautiful city, this brilliant sun, and to know that others will be stuck in offices with their agendas and their routines.  And to know that I’ve opted out of that.  I’ve more on this in future posts, but for now I’ll pop a cork and keep on smiling.

Depression, the Black Dog, the Serial Killer, can wait another day.