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

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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.

 

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“Theatre of Dreams”

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Manchester, 4th October 2017

I’ve just spent three days and three nights stealth-camping near Old Trafford in the city of Manchester, the city I love and have dreams of owning a place there again some day.

This was an important visit because I thought it would do my soul good, I wanted to catch up with some special friends and, most important of all, to be wined and dined by a literary agent who adores our TV play.

So there we were, Jayne and I, in The Rivals Restaurant of the Royal Exchange Theatre, meeting the man who was prepared to train it up from London, buy us a posh lunch and put faces to our names.  It was great to meet him and even better to hear his glowing praise of our labours – “I still don’t believe this is a first draft,” he kept saying.

It was all so upbeat, positive and cheery as he talked about where he’d pitch the script and the fact that we already have star-named actors on-board and eager to play roles, and other star-names were mooted too.  The agent was also keen to discuss our “impressive” track-records and indeed our unusual story – that we’re still married, separated, but very good friends.

“It’s good that you can still be friends,” he said.

“Only because we can’t afford to get divorced,” I quipped.

“Fuck off,” Jayne shot back.

But seriously this was a dream for both of us to finally feel some positivity and feel it’s worth writing something because it’s at least in with a shout of being made one day.  Also, of course, that day would mean a cheque.  No reason to see an end to my homelessness for some time yet, these things can take forever or never, but at least my life feels like it has some meaning and my future some hope.  This business is so tough and cruel at times, so to be told you have immense talent is of course refreshing, and a welcome shot in the arm when I’ve been down with the dog and losing self-belief.

It also felt great to be told he wants more work from us, so I’m putting the final touches on my stage play and will send to him forthwith.  And then on to our next joint project – or rather projects, because we’ve loads of ideas.

It was loads of fun too in Manchester and I’m sure I’ll write more on this anon.  But suffice it to say for now that my brief return to a beautiful city and my day in the “Theatre of Dreams” made stealth-camping that little more cheerful.

Homeward Bound

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I’m sitting in the railway station.
Got a ticket to my destination.
On a tour of one-night stands my suitcase and guitar in hand.
And every stop is neatly planned for a poet and a one-man band.
Homeward bound,
I wish I was,
Homeward bound,
Home where my thought’s escaping,
Home where my music’s playing,
Home where my love lies waiting
Silently for me.
Every day’s an endless stream
Of cigarettes and magazines.
And each town looks the same to me, the movies and the factories
And every stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be,
Homeward bound,
I wish I was,
Homeward bound,
Home where my thought’s escaping,
Home where my music’s playing,
Home where my love lies waiting
Silently for me.

 

OK so I’m back in Salford Quays, Media City UK.  It isn’t really my home, I don’t really know where that is to be honest, but I spent some very happy years here.  And now I’m back for an important meeting, but more importantly perhaps to see some very special friends.

Earlier, Kim and I were discussing how the black dog might be overlooked or underestimated by employers, but we didn’t get bogged down in that, such was our happiness and desire to catch up and have a damn good laugh.

Anyway we did have a good laugh, we ARE having a good laugh, so the black dog can go hang for a while as we savour the beauty that is this place.

It’s where I first set sail on this bizarre journey of mine, and where there’ll always be a piece of my heart.  Though I’m not from these parts, they’ll always feel special, and in some respects feel like home.

x

The Day I Met Jeff Stelling

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I love my Saturdays, especially in football season.  I buy the Guardian, I get me some nibbles and settle to watch Gillette Soccer Saturday and get drunk.  Once I got so drunk I fell asleep and nearly burnt down an entire apartment block in Salford Quays.  But that’s a diary entry for another once upon a time.

Jeff Stelling is my hero.  Part of me was uncomfortable with buying into Murdoch’s empire but the other part was addicted to Sky Sports’ hyperbole and garish colour.  The addiction to the show, and to the booze for that matter, wasn’t always conducive to relationships but selfishly I indulged knowing that with Jeff the black dog was locked in its kennel at least for the day.  But what will I do now I’m off-grid with no Sky dish or often no TV signal at all?  Nothing for it but to find a pub that’ll show it.

Gillette Soccer Saturday isn’t everyone’s bag (neither is football itself of course) but I can find myself transfixed.  Stelling is a brilliant wit, an intelligent brain and flawless anchorman.  Merse is hilariously malapropistic, Tommo is unfortunately Scouse, Champagne Charlie is cool as fuck and Tiss thinks he’s a saint, but all four are kept in line by the consummate Jeff.

About five years ago I was lucky enough to meet him.  I was working on Coronation Street at Granada (I miss that Quay Street oasis in the heart of Manchester – I had many happy days there) and the bosses offered staff a chance to cross-fertilise ie see what other TV practitioners got up to day-to-day.  I chose to spend a day on Countdown, shadowing a runner.  It was great fun; I got to sit in a contestant’s seat for a rehearsal, I got to play a game (but could only manage a five-letter word, much to my embarrassment and dismay).  And I finally got to meet my hero.  Jeff’s immediately likeable, affable, smart and handsome – he could play Bond… if he were a little taller maybe.  I told him I’d always been a fan and had written requesting a shout on Gillette Soccer Saturday for a throng of avid Stoke City fans – myself, Dom, Charlie and my muckers.  Apologetic, Jeff confessed he can’t always find time to give shouts but promised he’d try that coming weekend.

To my dying day I’ll regret that for some reason (must’ve been something dull and unavoidable like a wedding) I missed the show, so will never know if Jeff was true to his word.  I of course like to think he was.  But in some ways it doesn’t matter – I’d got to press the flesh of a “football legend”.

Talking of making good on promises, my welder showed up!

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The best result this Saturday!  Thank God for Steven and Yorkshire Mobile Welding Services!  Here’s a welder I must respect and here’s to getting back on the road to Scotland.  The Otter will soon be mobile again so lock up your rich Scottish widows!

The Land of a Thousand Hills – A Story of Genocide, Love and Human Strength

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I’ve come to the point in my novel where I retrace my tentative footsteps through Rwanda and the African Great Lakes Region.  And the story goes like this:

I first saw Aline Aimee when she came to me for a job on the radio soap opera Urunana (Hand in Hand).  She was tall, elegant and beautiful, with the kind of smile that only a Rwandese woman could have.  She spoke Kinyarwandan, English and French.  I wanted to give her a job but the vacancies were filled (I could’ve filled them 100 times over) so with a heavy heart I had to turn her away.

I saw her again in the Ramera Market and she smiled that smile.  I bought her a soda, over which she told me her story – both her mother and father were lured to the Nyamata Church on the outskirts of Kigali, believing they’d find refuge, only to be slain by machete-wielding Hutu Militia (Interahamwe – we kill together).  In hiding back in Kigali, Aline was left to look after her younger siblings and with the help of neighbours she made the long escape to Uganda.

After the war she made the 100-day trek back to her roots, carrying her little brother and sister and everything else she owned… a can for water and the clothes they stood up in.  Taken in once again by kindly neighbours she began to eke out a living by selling cobs of corn at the roadside so she could feed her family and buy herself an education.  Now, her siblings are six and eight and she wants to make sure their future would be better than hers.

Over the coming weeks Aline and I became friends and she like the team on Urunana would call me Mutijima (kind heart).  It transpired she had family in America and she dreamed of travelling to see them.  She also dreamed of saying her goodbyes to her dead parents, so I took her to the church near Bugesera where they rested…

Here, many hundreds of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally murdered and their bones are piled like a skeletal monument to the dead, and their skulls are racked like hundreds of ostrich eggs, many bearing cracks where the machetes and clubs had met their target.  I wanted to stand back and allow Aline to pick over the bones but she took my hand, begging me to go with her.  We entered the church where layer upon layer of bones, clothes, children’s books and other worldly possessions were matted between the pews, and we had no choice but to walk on them.  It felt disrespectful to trample over the dead but Aline said we must, to get to where she needed.  At the altar, a bible lay open and a skull had been carefully placed on top.  Beyond this, in what I supposed was the bombed-out chancel, were the skulls.  I noticed nothing except stillness; no smell of death now, and no sound except for monarch birds tweeting in the eucalyptus trees.  Aline looked over the skulls, tears in her eyes, then reached out and touched one of them.

“C’est mon pere,” she said, “Et a cote de lui c’est ma mere.”

I’ll never know how she knew it was them, or even IF she knew it, but I couldn’t question.  Who could?  She was saying her goodbyes and that was that.  She asked me to touch her parents too, and so I did, running my finger along the crack where the machete had fatally fallen.  This wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead body but it was the first I’d touched; two people I’d never known but I’d never forget.

As Aline then knelt to pray I stood back to leave her in the moment, and choking my own tears I could only write something probably insignificant in the book of condolence – what words are there to amply embrace the horror felt at the sight of such murderous meaningless?

“Merci,” she said, “Merci de m’avoir permis de les voir.”

In the days and weeks that followed, Aline would visit me in the house in Kigali, where my night-guard called Joseph lived up a tree and Gysenge my day-guard tended the garden with his machete.  I hadn’t been able to give her work but I always made sure Aline had food in her belly and something to take home to her brother and sister.  One night I played guitar for her and sang (something to remind her of her family in America I think) and she told me she loved me but I said I couldn’t love her back.  I kissed her on the cheek and tasted her tears.

I visited her too, in her little hut in Ramera, and met her brother and sister.  And one day out of the blue she said,

“Je veux voir l’homme qui a tue mes parents.”  (I want to see the man who killed my parents).

So I took her to Gitarama Prison, a hell-hole where it was said that inmates stood up in their own shit, while ones more privileged for whatever reason would be tasked with making furniture, dressed in pink to tell the world who they were.  As we sat outside the gates, peering in, I wanted to know if Aline was sure.

“Oui je suis sur,” she replied, “Et je suis sur qu’il est le seul.”

As she pointed to one of the prisoners in pink, again I could only take her at face value.  I saw this time she didn’t cry.  There was sadness in her eyes but nothing fell from them.

“How does it make you feel?” I asked.

“Rien,” she said, “Je ne sens rien.  Maintenant je veux aller a la maison.”  She’d seen all she wanted to see.  She’d looked into the eyes of her parents’ killer, and now wanted to go home.

Soon my work in Rwanda was done and I was heading home to Manchester via Paris, eager to be reunited with my own family.

“Thank you Mutijima,” she said, in English this time, “thank you for everything you’ve done for me.  And for everything you’ve done for my country.”

But on the plane I knew I’d done very little.  Yes I’d done my best to create a project to help bring some sustainable stability to a troubled but beautiful country, and yes I was proud of my achievements.  I still am.  But what was this compared to the super-strength of a young orphan forced to mother her baby siblings, and her determination to make a better life after Genocide had taken nearly everything?

Now, more than twenty years on, when the black dog comes barking and I feel sorry for myself, I often think of Aline.  I wonder if she lived?  If she managed to get her siblings into school?  Did she save enough to get to America and reunite with her uncles?  Somehow I think she probably did all those things.  She’d lived through a horror and a sadness I could only imagine, yet I never once saw her feel sorry for herself.  She just got on with life.  I should never forget that.