Ups and Downs

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Bouncy Castle – Sea-front, Filey

I mentioned my new friend Trevor.  I was just about to pay for parking at Flamborough Head when he hailed me from his lovely V-Dub and gave me an overnight ticket as he was about to leave.  We got chatting about all things campervanning and life and he told me he and his partner Karen were from Worksop.  He used to be a screw (can’t remember which prison) then took early retirement, went back on the plumbing tools for a while and finished up in catering.  I hope he wouldn’t mind me saying he looked like he’d eaten a few of the pies.

But he was a great character, talking a mile-a-minute, full of joie de vivre and passion for travel.  He showed me pics of some of the stealth-camping hot-spots.  “Sorry to keep you,” he kept saying, then kept me.  But after the shit day I’d had, his kindness, friendliness and wit were breaths of sea air.  I’d found solace in a kindred spirit and one I know I’ll keep in touch with.

Nevertheless I still woke up next morning feeling down, so had a long walk on Bempton Cliffs, watching gannets soaring up and dive-bombing down in their avian cod war, then drove up the coast in search of more friendly faces.

My real friend Gaz had put me in touch with an old Grammar School mate called Rachel and I’d seen that she and her husband Stuart had started following my blog.  He said they were up in Filey, running a seafront mini-fairground, so that’s where I headed, hoping my bearings both mechanical and cerebral were in order.  I parked up, walked down the Ravine and spotted the bright yellow bouncy castle, which I later learned is visible with the naked eye from Bempton (on a clear day, which this was).

Unsung and overlooked Filey has a beautiful coastline with grand Victorian villas and bungalows nestled into its cliffs; I’d been here before in happier times and was hoping for cheer this time around.  Even though I hadn’t seen her for 38 years I spotted and recognised Rachel immediately, approached her, and asked how much for a bounce.

“It’s you!” she proclaimed.  After exchanging hugs and how d’you dos, we chatted about old times and I recalled that her tribe were legends, having appeared on TVs Ask The Family with Robert Robinson.  Yes her family were world-famous at Nantwich & Acton Grammar School.  She asked if I were staying over and though I’d planned to get up to Whitby, the offer of dinner, wine, music and chat was too good to turn down.

After a pint at the Cobble Bar then a very long walk down the beach in the sun, I drove to Rachel and Stuart’s place, a lovely rural semi.  Getting reacquainted with Rach and meeting her husband was a pleasure, and their story of how they got together was the stuff of brilliant romance.  Frankly I won’t waste it on this blog, but to summarise, the two of them fell in love notionally before they’d even met, then realised it on a long haul flight.

As we shared stories of travel and life, filling in the 38 years since school, it transpired there were lots of connections; both Rach and Stuart knew my brother Tez and there were mutual friends in Big Steve, Wakey and many others.  To my shame it was clear that Rachel is much better at keeping in touch with old friends than I am.

Two other things struck me that night, a) though I’m not a doggy person, I made friends with their ten-year-old pooch called Poppy, who also took a shine to me, b) how I miss having a proper home and garden, and c) how lonely I’d been.  It was such a pleasure to spend time with a wonderful couple so deeply in love, and enjoy a delicious meal in the power-house which is their state-of-the-art kitchen… it even had something called an Amazon Dot called Alexa, who would play any music you told her to, gave a weather report, up-do-date news, and if you went away for a week no doubt she’d feed the fish and water the begonias.

But of course all good things come to an end and, seeing they were knackered after a hard (yet no doubt lucrative) day at work, I retired back to the Ottermobile which I’d “stealth-camped” in their ample garden.  It was a fabulous night, so welcome after a miserable couple of days, and I bedded down feeling up – people are so kind and just when you need them, there they are.  Just like Rachel and Stuart’s bouncy castle, I am up then I am down.  As I said to a barmaid in York the other day:

When I am up I am up

And when I am down I am down

And when I am only half-way up…  ah you get the picture.

The Story of Losing One’s Bearings

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The morning after the wheel-bearing fiasco I woke up early and waited for the grease monkey.  His name was Alan, a thick-set character who, like all mechanics, wasn’t inclined to start with good news.  “Problem is getting the bearings for this model,” he said, gloomily.  But after a nifty phone call he said he could get them by 2.30 and have me back on the road “while 5.”  This was good news, though I knew it would cost me and I’d have to go to the Bank of Podge.  Anyway I hastily planned a day in Bridlington to kill time and write.

After a hearty breakfast in a town centre cafe I enjoyed a five-mile walk down the prom tiddley-om-pom-pom then felt I deserved a pint.  Many years ago Jayne switched on the Christmas lights here and I remembered it well.  I chose the Harbour Tavern where I was delighted to get a pint of bitter for £1.90.  38 bob!  You could’ve knocked me down with a feather.  Cheap round here, I thought.

The bar was quiet at first; just an old couple sipping drinks in complete and bored silence, a retired gent with a good head of hair moaning to his friend about a non-regular who scooped the jackpot on the machine.  “Twice!” he added, more than once.  And a jovial barmaid grumbling to a vaping barfly about her dog; “He’s a little shit,” she said.  And finally the most amazingly hilarious mullet I’ve ever seen.  Oh how I laughed to myself… until I realised I’ve got one!

As the bar filled up I thought I’d chance my arm with one of the locals over a cigarette outside – a retired fisherman called Tom, a wiry old gent with forearms like Popeye, who told me his tale that ended in tragedy.  He’d worked at sea, fishing for cod, haddock, lobster and crab, all his life and his sons followed.  Up at 2 and braving the tides for twelve hours was tough work with never any guarantee of a good catch.  One night a storm brewed and the twenty-foot waves engulfed his coble, causing one of his sons to slip.  Desperately, Tom grabbed his hand but couldn’t hang on, so he watched helplessly as his son slid away and got taken by Neptune.  Bereft, Tom thought he could carry on till retirement, but after a few more trips he realised he’d have to call it a day, too powerful was the trauma.  His remaining sons still fish and every time they go out, Tom can’t sleep, till he knows they’re safely ashore.

I wondered how many matelots have similar tales of woe, and frankly I marvelled at how they do it.  I pictured myself on a boat, slipping and sliding on deck in all weathers, and shuddered, knowing I’m not man enough for it.  Like coal mining it’s one of those jobs people do, as we consumers take their rewards for granted.  I felt ashamed at how many times my computer has crashed and I term it a peril of the job of writing.  As my dad might’ve said, we don’t know we’re born.

To clear my head of sadness I took another brisk walk until Alan called to say the bearings were replaced.  As I headed for the garage, impressed with their turbo performance, I thought all was not so bad.  I was expecting (stupidly) a bill of about thirty quid, then nearly dropped dead to be told it was over three times that!  I think I said the word bollocks out loud, and added it wasn’t so cheap around these parts after all.

One of those things I guess.  At least I had my home back, and my life.  But I still couldn’t help feeling down as I pulled up next to Flamborough Lighthouse.  Yes this time there was a trigger as my head filled with orange and I broke down and wept.

These are the times you feel the loneliest, and that the project is utterly pointless or even impossible to complete.  It wasn’t so much the Ottermobile as me who’d lost his bearings.  But what can you do but carry on?  What can possibly go wrong now?  At least I did find some solace in a kind new friend and fellow-vanner called Trevor from Worksop (more on this next time) but you can’t vent your anger on a new friend, can you?  So I just had to get my head down and forget about the whole thing, cry myself to sleep.

Trouble was, the bloody lighthouse kept flashing!  If they had any consideration for travellers they’d switch it off at night-time.  I managed a chuckle as I thought that one up, but knew that Sailor Tom wouldn’t.

 

Big Mouth Strikes Again

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Big Mouth (Herring Gull – Bridlington)

Somebody said I don’t put enough photos in my diary posts – apparently readers today have a short attention-span.  In my view that’s a sad indictment but hey-ho.  So let’s play a pictorial game: Spot the difference between this pic I took of a carousel in York:

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… and this one of my wheel in Bridlington:

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Answer: the carousel goes round whereas my wheel does not.  Because the fucking bearings went.  The story goes like this:

I was heading to Filey, doing about 50, when I heard a loud crunch at the back and the Ottermobile was yanked violently to the left.  I immediately turned the hazards on and pulled over to make emergency calls (and change my underpants).  At first I thought the exhaust had come off but soon realised the rear left wheel was smoking and I could smell the stink of red-hot axle-grease.

Tell me this; why are some people such arseholes?  Though I’d put a warning triangle at the rear and opened the bonnet to show both directions I was in trouble, I still had at least three motorists peeping their horns, flashing their lights and making get-out-of-the-way gestures.  I made fuck off gestures back because as I say, they’re arseholes.  On the other side of the coin, one couple kindly stopped to ask if I was OK.  Not arseholes.  But I digress.

Eventually, saviour arrived in a mechanic called Ian from Beverley – a young and handsome man with a friendly face and disposition.  He jacked me up, as it were, took one look and said “It’s your bearings.”

“What’s up with them?” I asked.

“They’re fucked,” he replied.

“Right.  Is that the technical term and more importantly is it a big job?”

“You need a recovery vehicle and I knock off at 5,” he said, “It’s my lass’s birthday and we’ve got a table booked.”

In man-to-man language I knew that meant he was on a promise, and far be it from me to get in the way of a man’s conjugal rights, fucked bearings or no fucked bearings.

Ian wasn’t being unhelpful, he just didn’t have the tools to fix the job onsite, all he could do was escort me off the road and onto a safe place while I waited for a recovery truck.  So very slowly I crept some 500 yards to a farmer’s drive as Ian made the necessary calls.  Telling me that help would be there in an hour, he shook my hand and left.

“Enjoy your shag,” I quipped, and he gave me a wink that said it all.

As promised, within an hour, further assistance arrived in Rob, who deftly tail-ended me, as it were, and told me to get in the back of his pick-up because his lass was in the front.  “What is it about Yorkshiremen and their lasses?” I thought, “Are they joined at the hip?”  But anyway it turned out to be a family business owned by Rob’s father-in-law, and as we towed the Ottermobile back to Bridlington I got to know this lovely couple as best I could.  Also from Beverley, they bigged-up the town and its market, its minster (where they got married 15 years ago) and its horse racing.  And they’d be combining this job with a fish and chip treat on the seafront, especially if the famous Audrey’s was open.

When we got to the garage it was closed (or “clersed” as they pronounce it in their nick of the woods) so they dropped me on the forecourt, leaving me to prep for the night.

The garage was in a residential street and there were loads of kids running about, clearly amused at the sight of a grey old man putting his slippers on.  I fearfully expected Jimmy Savile references but mercifully none forthcame.  But they hung around for ages, causing me to wonder what time kids go to fucking bed these days!

When it finally went quiet except for seagulls’ cries, I did some soul-searching.  How had it come to this?  How had my life gone so tits-up?  Yet another depressing setback, halting my project and progress up to Scotland.  So I had to think of Aline, and Lucy, and James the gypsy hitch-hiker,  and all the others I’d met on my journey who were fucked-up but always ready with a smile.  Because we are all fucked-up in some way, I mused, just some of us are more fucked-up than others.  And some of us cope with fucked-up-ness better than others.

“Look on the bright side,” said Jayne on the phone, “You’re alive and you’ve got somewhere to sleep.”  She was right of course, that’s true.  But it’s also true that I’d had another brush with death; both Rob and Ian said I was lucky because if I’d driven 100 yards further the wheel would’ve come off – and if I’d been on a motorway…  It didn’t bear thinking about.

That’s why this one’s called Big mouth Strikes Again.  Not because I’m a fan of The Smiths and Morrissey, which I am, but because I’d dismissed Bridlington for its lacking lustre, and then I’m expecting it to put me up for the night and get my Ottermobile fixed on the cheap.  And I was bragging about my project, saying it’s helping with the black dog and all that.  Well I should’ve kept my trap shut because this was the second potentially-fatal incident (loyal readers will remember an early post about my brakes failing in Halifax).  If these things come in threes, the next time it’s curtains.  At times like this I wouldn’t care.

Homeless – My Night with a Down-and-out

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York – The Shambles by the Author!

I always knew there’d be a first time for someone to sleep the night with me in my van, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it’d be a bloke.

To give the backstory, just like many other towns and cities, York has a real homeless problem – in recent years it’s seen a rise of 40% of those officially considered to be in that category.  I don’t include myself – my Ottermobile is my home, not in the traditional sense, but it’s a roof over my head with certain amenities so enough for me to call it that.  But yes it’s only one small step away from the streets.

Which is where I met “Tony”.  Normally those you encounter in shop doorways lie in a shambles of bedclothes with a paper cup in front of them, and they’re mutteringly asking if you have any spare change.  But there was something noticeably different about Tony – well-spoken, smart but casual in jeans and anorak, clean-looking, he politely approached me and asked for help.  Though homeless and penniless, there was something in his eyes that made me warm to him.  I knew there was a story but I didn’t want it there and then so I invited him into a nearby cafe and bought him a tea and a bun.  Gratefully he put down his bags and found a table, where I described my project and my own proximity to homelessness.  Hearing this seemed to touch him all the more so I wondered if in return he’d tell me how he came to be here, joking that he didn’t get the comestibles for free.  He laughed and begun his tale, which here I summarise.

Originally from Blackpool, he left school with nothing to write home about and drifted through dead-end jobs and relationships, finishing up in a fairground burger van.  Eventually he managed to save up and get himself to Brussels, where he studied catering with dreams of becoming a restaurateur.  Suddenly he heard from his brother that his parents and Auntie had been killed in a car crash.  Returning home to see to the funeral, he met a guy who’d become his lover.  They settled in Blackpool where he got a job as a waiter while setting up a bistro with his brother, using their small inheritance.

The hikes in rent hit him hard and he eventually lost the business, and when his boyfriend deserted him and he was duped by his brother, he went into financial and mental decline.  Since then he’s drifted around our cities to find work.

It was a story far from unique I supposed, and heartbreaking, but as with Aline (see Land of a Thousand Hills) there was the air of “that’s how it goes” pragmatism – Tony doesn’t feel sorry for himself, though he is at times baffled as to how this happened, how he got here, how rapid was the journey.

But don’t suppose either of us were down in the dumps; Tony was a very funny young man of 30, good-looking, bright, friendly and hopeful; all he wanted, he said, was to get a full-time job, save up and get back to Belgium.

Impressed with his positivity and warmed by his wit, I asked how this is possible when sleeping rough – isn’t it dangerous?  Does he encounter violence etc?  With a shrug Tony said this and other things come with the territory.  He’d been propositioned for sex, which he’d never lower himself to, he’d been attacked over a cup of tea, and he’d been offered drugs though he’s never so much as smoked a spliff.  Sleeping rough is a last resort, he said, he sometimes gets casual work and can afford a hostel, but finding a full-time job is difficult.

I really liked Tony and felt for him, especially when he said he’d slept rough the night before and got drenched; he’d spent his last pennies on getting his clothes laundered.  Though the weather had improved I couldn’t bear the thought of him kipping in a doorway so wondered if he’d prefer a roof over his head, just one night…

So I found myself in a lay-by near Murton, setting up stealth-camp.  Knowing he was hungry, as was I, I vowed to rustle something up, explaining I love cooking for people and don’t get the chance nowadays.  He was the chef and I was the novice but with meagre provisions I managed to make a meal which he seemed to enjoy.  Beggars can’t be choosers, he said!  There was no wine to go with the dish, but we didn’t need it because we were laughing like drains at how bizarre all this was; total strangers, sharing food, sharing jokes, playing Ludo (!) and bonding in ludicrous adversity.

Though the Ottermobile claims to be a two-berth it’s a tight squeeze, but I managed the awkward and funny manoeuvre of the seats to bed down – not before I’d declared some ground-rules:

No farting

No breakfast

In the morning he must be gone before I do my ablutions, and

No funny business.

Responding in order, he said he doesn’t fart, he’d get breakfast elsewhere, he’d no desire to see me “ablute” and as for funny business he wouldn’t touch me with a fucking barge-pole.  I said I felt a mixture of amusement, offence and comfort from that peroration.  Tony laughed, telling me I was a lovely bloke, if a bit mad, he’d had a great time and I’m crap at Ludo.

Next morning, after a quiet night’s kip he made a sharp exit as promised, with a quip that I could now shit in peace.  He also took my number and promised to stay in touch.  Whether that will happen I very much doubt, but that doesn’t matter.  He was a fine young man; he was good company, he made me laugh, but most importantly he made me think about what’s important.  “We Stand Together” went the mantra after recent terrorist attacks.  What more can we do but help each other through?  We’re human beings and that’s what we do, or most of us.  I’ve always championed the underdog, it’s in my make-up.  If I can help I will, and I wish I could do more.  I’m no saint, God knows, but I like to think and I like to know that whatever happens to me and if I end up in Tony’s shoes, someone will be there to help me.  I’ll think a lot about Tony and marvel at his cheer in dark days, I’ll hope he’ll get back to Brussels, and I’ll forever be saddened at how it got to this.  We all roll the dice I suppose, but only some of us score a six.

Right now though I’m concerned about getting to the Filey coast and up into Scotland.  Time for me, like for everyone, is running out.

Ludo

Best of Both Worlds – The Dubious Art of Finding a Story

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It’s not so straightforward to approach people these days.  I’m not saying folk are unfriendly, by and large the world turns around because most of us are law-abiding, decent and civil.  But with the increase of crime comes the rise of suspicion, so when you make a beeline for a complete stranger in a pub, deep down you might expect the cold shoulder, a mouthful of abuse or even a smack in the mouth.  So you’d think I’d be cautious, but to be honest I’m not.  Not entirely.

All those years ago when I was interviewed by Health Unlimited for the job in Rwanda I was asked how I’d cope in a dangerous place and/or situation, and I used the analogy that as a writer I see two pubs in the town square – one looks quiet, the other sounds rowdy.  I choose the rowdy one because that could be more interesting; I might get a story and a character with my pint.  And that was the case in Leeds recently.  The story I found isn’t the greatest ever told but I’ll use it to illustrate my point.

But first, you don’t find stories sitting on your arse, and I’m not a great fan of researching on the internet, which to me is the last resort.  You have to market yourself and I find the pub has the best footfall in terms of setting out my stall.  And there I will feed carrots to the horses and get the stories from their mouths.

So I’m in a rough pub in Leeds, where I order a pint and casually take in the customers.  There’s a ladies’ darts match on and I note the tattoos, the hairdos or attempts thereof, the cleavage, the banter and frankly the admirable ability to find the treble twenty.  It’s a weekly event they practise for, dress up for, then look forward to post-match drinks, fags and trays of meat paste sandwiches and limp lettuce.  But that’s not all.  In a corner there’s a couple of fellas playing ukelele and banjo, singing folk songs.  In another there’s an elderly couple mouthing the words, probably inaccurately, between sips.  At the bar there’s a passionate debate happening for three tough-looking guys, the crux of which sounds like would Leeds go up this season and would re-ownership of Elland Road bode well?  I feel like adding my views but resist temptation because I’ve seen someone to pick on – the biggest and roughest-looking man of the considerable bunch of clientele.

He’s on his own right now but I sense he’s waiting for someone or something to happen.  He’s a big guy looking 50 but probably younger, covered in body art.  One of the tattoos, a serpent, coils around his neck and into his bald head, finishing at the fontanelle.  In his nose he wears a ring and in his ears are those big holey things I don’t know the name of but remind me of the Maasai I’ve seen in Kenya and Tanzania. His considerable torso is covered with a denim jacket with the sleeves ripped off, showing his impressively-painted guns.  I ask if this seat is spare and he just nods.

After a few slurps of my Timothy Taylor I finally manage to get a word.  Riskily I tell him I’m not a local and he tells me he knows, he has me down as a traveller.  He’s clocked my bag, he’s clocked me scraping together shrapnel at the bar and he’s figured I’m on my uppers.  I confirm this, and tell him I’m living in a van.  He seems to relax now, and even commends my story, saying he’s done most of the UK and Europe on his motorbike, a Harley.  I know nothing about bikes but explain my brother had one, and he’s impressed until I add that it was a Suzuki 250.  Sensing there’s not much mileage in my brother’s bike I push it maybe and ask if he’s a Hell’s Angel.  He shakes his head, insisting he just likes bikes and he also likes free-living and having sex, and with a tap of his nose he adds that he doesn’t work.  His name is Craig but people call him Bex.  I want to push further and ask why Bex, and how he makes his living, but he begins his story so I hang fire…

He’s waiting for his wife.  Well, she isn’t his wife, not any more, she’s his first wife and now his mistress, his current wife is playing darts.  She knows he’s having an affair with his ex, and his ex knows he’s got a wife at home, and knows that she knows.  It’s all hunky dory for Bex, he’s got the best of both worlds.  At this point he asks if I want another and I decline, saying I’m driving, but he insists that if I refuse he will finish up falling out with me.  It’s the first hint of aggression and I realise this could go either way.  When he returns with three pints (one for his mistress who he says has just texted to say she’s on her way) he tells me more about both his worlds: the bikes, the bike crashes, the metal pin in his left leg thanks to some knob-head in a BMW on Snake Pass, the brawls, the women, the sex.  There’s still an edge to his pitch and I kind of hope his mistress would turn up and change the dynamic.  Then he asks if I’m married, so I tell him separated, and he asks how I go on for sex?

Sometimes in unpredictable situations I find self-deprecation can help – it can throw the the other person, surprise them into submission, make them see you’re no threat, or even make them laugh.  So I go for telling him I don’t get lucky, and even if I did I’m not sure I’d be any good at it anymore – I’d have to pretend that were someone else.  The gag is not mine it belongs to the Bob Monkhouse estate, and Bex laughs so I’m cool with robbing a dead man if it achieves the change of gear I’m after.  But lurking beneath the laughter and testosterone and clouding the beer I sense another story, if I dare ask.  Because there’s a sadness in his worlds and a depression in his eyes that I can see; it takes one to know one…

… Bex was born Craig B (name withheld) in Scarborough, where his father was a fisherman his mother a seamstress.  It wasn’t a happy marriage.  His father was a chronic drunk; when he wasn’t at sea he was in the pub and when he wasn’t slurping pints he was beating his wife.  One night the beatings got out of hand and his mother lashed out in self-defence, but this only provoked his fury and he clouted her over the head with the coal shovel, killing her… and into that beautiful world was born Craig.  As his father did time and subsequently died inside, Craig was brought up by his Aunty and abused for years by his Uncle.  Then at the age of fifteen he ran away and never went back.  To this day he won’t go near Scarborough.  He’ll travel the world, but not there – too many haunting memories…

I’ve summarised the story but you get the picture – this gargantuan man, looking for all the world the toughest you’d encounter, reduced to near-tears as he unburdens to me, a complete stranger he’s only met one pint ago.  And I don’t really know how I’ve done it, how I’ve managed to get him to offload.  Or maybe it isn’t me at all, maybe I’ve just picked on someone who really needs to tell?   Anyway, not abruptly, after a bit more chat (you can’t just jump up and leave when someone’s borne his soul) I say it’s nice to talk to him but I really must get off and find somewhere to stealth-camp.  And thankfully he’s fine with that, so I wonder if he’s had his fill of emptying his closet of skeletons.

As I empty my bladder before heading out, I ponder his story and its ratio of fact to fiction.  Did his father really kill his mother while she was carrying him?  Did he ever meet his father, look into the eyes of his mother’s slaughterer?  Was it really a coal shovel?  Does he really own a Harley?  Is his left leg really made of metal thanks to the knob-head in a BMW?  Is his wife really throwing arrows in the bar?  Does the first-wife-cum-mistress exist and is she really on her way?

Then as I head for the exit I look back to our corner.  And there is Bex grinning over at me and waving, and at his side is a very attractive blonde, sipping her pint, smiling and also giving a wave.  Whether she’s his wife or ex-wife-cum-mistress I’ll never know.  But I leave it to my imagination as I head for my van, passing a beautiful gleaming Harley Davidson on the way.

Don’t Rain on My Parade

At school we used to have “Rainy Day Play” which meant it was pissing down and playtime was spent indoors breathing in other pupils’ farts instead of fresh air.  In truth it didn’t have to be pissing down; the first spot on the window pane had teachers gleefully banning the opening of doors.  It feels like that where I am today as I’m forced to stay inside the Ottermobile.  I’d planned a 10-mile hike but the professor in me saw the rain and vetoed the idea.  So I’m doing a lot of thinking, especially about the reactions to yesterday’s diary entry, which applaud my attempt to add to the growing Social Media noises about depression.  In entries to follow I promise more adventures and to be frivolous again, but as a last word for now on the subject, and to hopefully raise even more awareness, I ask a simple question: Are people with depression unemployable?

Back in 2011 The Guardian ran a piece about whether or not to disclose to your employer that you have a mental illness, a horrible dilemma I outlined in yesterday’s post.  The article cited a couple of examples where the person chose to “out” themselves and found it to be beneficial, but argued in balance that that isn’t universally the case.  So that was six years ago and you’d hope things might’ve improved immensely since then.  But given that 1 in 4 British people per year suffer in some way from depression, stress or anxiety, it worries me that though the issue is now more recognised and taken more seriously, there remains some doubt about whether employers really do “get it.”

This is of course regarding people who are in work, but what about those who find themselves unemployed?  On the positive side, more than 450 employers so far have signed the Time to Change Pledge, but there is a lot more to be done.  The Mind website makes interesting reading with regards to their campaign to lobby the Government with ideas for a more radical and workable back-to-work scheme.  The case studies on the site particularly intrigue me; there are many people in the position I describe – they want to work but find themselves tied up in red tape and Jobcentre bureaucracy, in some cases professional people with excellent skills, qualifications and career histories being advised to attend a course on how to write a CV!  It isn’t the Jobcentre’s fault, they’re merely following guidelines, but it’s time to realise the guidelines are archaic and only serve to make an applicant more demoralised than they were in the first place.  The guidelines can only change when attitudes change.

I think that whether you’re in work or not, one of the difficulties of mental illness in the context I’m discussing, is that it is ‘invisible’.  Whereas a person with flu (for example only) might display symptoms, a person with depression can on the outside look the picture of health.  A person with depression can laugh and joke, so on the surface he or she seems absolutely fine, and it’s therefore no wonder to be fair that people might not notice or understand it.  But on the inside the person is suffering, often privately and spiralling in the way I posited yesterday.

When I was in Bradford recently I visited someone I know well who is undergoing chemotherapy.  We talked about music and lots of things and had some laughs, but we also talked about work, and his employers being supportive.  Which is just as well, he said, because if he lost his job who would employ a man in his mid-fifties with cancer?  I knew what he meant but it shocked me; it was almost like someone saying Who would employ me because I’m non-white, gay, disabled?

In one of my previous jobs in TV I was responsible for finding new talent and addressing the issue of diversity.  It’s a difficult job but I’m pleased to say I had some success.  But we can always and should always do more to open doors for the broadest cross-section of society.  We can do more for ethnicity, we can do more for those with disabilities, and given that statistically 25% of society has mental illness, we can do more for that section too.

I’ve made thousands of bad calls in my life but one of the worst was not putting by for a rainy day.  If I’d known (or in truth been less naive) about how my illness would affect my career, I might not have made that mistake.  But you live and learn eventually.  And though it’s a “rainy day” today I’m going for that walk after all.  I’ve got my van and I’ve got places to see, adventures to find, fun to have and frivolousness to deliver.  Life’s candy and the sun’s a ball of butter.

 

Happy Endings – A Story in Three Parts

mark sunset

Image by Jayne Bickerton

Part One:

Depression manifests itself in many different ways, depending I suppose who you are and how you’re made up.  Because I do think it’s genealogical; I never got to meet my granddad, but if my mother’s tales were anything to go by, he was an alcoholic.  And though I think the word was never used in those days, depression was what he suffered and died from.  Depression is not easy to describe, but with your blessing I’ll attempt to do so, at least from my own perspective…

Like a human drama serial, this thing comes in episodes.  They’re not time-specific though, they can last for a day, a week, a month…  And each one finishes but you know there’ll be another instalment – as for when, you’re kept in suspense.  I’ve had many episodes in my life, and while they’re always similar in terms of the physical (because it is a physical illness) the mental side can vary – from hopelessness, apathy, despair to the far end of the spectrum, suicidal tendencies or even an attempt to “end it”.

Let me first take the physical side.  The body aches, it doesn’t want to get out of bed, it doesn’t want to be dressed, it refuses to exercise, it’s seized-up, it’s blown a gasket, it’s just conked out.  This I admit is a simplistic portrait, but to me it is that simple; your body has just packed up.

The mental side is far more complex and I repeat, varied.  This won’t make for merry reading but I offer two examples of either end of the spectrum I outlined above.

Part Two:

The first example is triggered by nothing in particular but it can trigger something life-threatening (see my previous diary entry).  You wake up with a strange feeling that the hours are going to be dark.  It takes a while to get up.  You run a bath.  It goes cold because you go back to bed.  You finally get up and let the water out, and you hate the waste of a commodity we in this country take for granted while others are gasping for it.  You run another bath.  But the tank is cold now.  You sit in the freezing water for ages.  Your mind goes orange, you’re feeling nothing except hopelessness… What are you doing here?  Why were you born?  Why have you made your life a mess?  Where are you going?  Why does nobody love you?  Of course you know that people do love you, but that’s how it feels.  It’s not as simple as just feeling sorry for yourself, which is why it’s irritating when people tell people like you to “cheer up” or “get a grip” or “pull yourself together.”  Because the hopelessness makes that impossible, the hopelessness is overpowering and oppressive to common sense.  Some people say it’s like being strait-jacketed and you know what they mean.  But to you it feels like someone’s poured sand in your ear, making your head too heavy to function, blocking the ability to think straight, to appreciate what’s good about your life and the world itself.  So you have to wait till you sleep on the right side and the sand runs out.  But when the days go by and there’s no sign of the sand on your pillow, only tears, the only way of coping is to drink, find some escape, and drink, and drink… and nearly burn yourself to death.

The second example is work-related.  You have a great job, demanding and tiring but great.  You’re doing well, riding high.  Then one morning it goes orange.  Again no particular trigger, just everything turning orange in your head and your body shutting down.  You try to soldier on but the more you do the less you get done.  It’s the curse of the strong – you’re a strong man but you’re losing control, and that’s the worst thing that can happen to someone like you.  It’s time to get help, you know it, from your loved-ones, from your boss, but to ask is to betray your weakness so instead you bottle it up, the dog is mauling you but you conceal the teeth-marks.  The reluctance to show weakness is compounded by the fear that nobody will understand, your boss won’t get it, and the very real fear of losing your job or being “managed out”.  The fear of your talents slipping away or being ignored.  So you neither turn to others nor help yourself, you do yourself no favours which means you turn to drink.  Before you know it you’re on a spiral that only goes downwards and the self-loathing kicks in, you hate yourself so much that the very idea that anybody can love you seems ludicrous, and life itself seems impossible too, so what choice do you have but to weigh up how to do it… a rope, a hose-pipe or walk into the sea?

Part Three:

But there is always another choice, and there’s always the fact you have a responsibility, to yourself and your loved-ones.  If you didn’t turn to them for help, you only have yourself to blame.  It seems incongruous but you’re in a privileged position to be in the abyss, but looking up at the sun or stars.  The sun warms your face, and the stars say you can fight, you can fight both your circumstances and your dog.  Your reason to live is right there.  Your loved-ones, the things in life that give you pleasure.

Your pleasure happens to be travel, so what better way to leave this thing behind?  It’s not running away, it’s running to something new.  It’s not displaying weakness it’s showing you’re in control again.  And finally, you’re not hopeless, you’re full of promise, full of joy and full of knowledge that the fucking dog is no better than you.  You are the master.  And now the master heads for the sun, on his merry way.