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!

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It’s Family, Innit!

Dedicated to Elaine Bickerton.

Before my Welsh disappointment I landed in my birthplace of Nantwich with a bag of washing and an agenda – to see as many friends and family as I could, to afford some sense, meaning and order to my random life.  I’ll chronicle all of this in future posts but this one’s about my eldest brother Podge, whose door I darkened first.  Podge was tragically widowed earlier this year and I needed to see he was OK.

Though confessing to “having his moments” I found him in good spirits – he’s got a lovingly large family around him and plans are afoot to take a couple of his grandkids to visit his daughter Amy in Australia.  If it isn’t family or golf that occupies him, it’s a new venture – researching our family tree, something I’ve always wanted to do (not least because we’re related to the Kennedys).  Over a couple of beers and a butty we reminisced about family holidays and happy times gone by, and filled some of the gaps in our ancestral knowledge.

At the ripe age of 66 (yesterday) it was clear he had more gaps in his mind than me!  I’ll give you an example in dialogue form:

PODGE      So how’s the travelling going?

ME             Great.

PODGE      Any plans to visit the Isle of Man?

ME             Not specifically but I might hop over there one day, why?

PODGE      Thought you might want to write about it, you’ve been there before.

ME             I haven’t.

PODGE     You have.

ME            I haven’t.

PODGE     You have!

ME             When?

PODGE      When you were small, with mum and dad.

ME             I didn’t.

PODGE      You did!

ME             Podge, I have never been to the Isle of Man!

PODGE      You have been to the Isle of Man!

ME              Are you sure?

PODGE      I’m positive!  (PAUSE)  Or was it Torquay?

If she were alive today, Elaine would call him a dozy old sod and he would just grin from ear to ear, and laugh.  We all would.  I love the man.  It was good to be around him (especially as he fed me) and I knew there’d be more laughter to come on this leg of my journey.  Yes I had this happy and positive feeling that amazing things were bound to happen.  And I was right.  I’ll keep you posted.

“Come Come Nuclear Bomb” North Wales

Found myself in North Wales and got lost.  Finally wound up in Prestatyn, parked for free and strolled down the town to the traeth (beach).  The town looked OK for one street, ie not tacky, but at the traeth I was shocked at how many wind-farms were out of sea.  Hundreds.  I’m all in in favour of non-nuclear energy but these are an eyesore on the horizon.  I’ve seen many of these on my journeys, from the Yorkshire Moors to the Cumbrian Mountains and have debated internally their aesthetic value – are they ugly modern monstrosities or majestic pieces of kinetic art: angels’ wings or the bare arms of synchronised swimmers?  Here, in Prestatyn, they’re unquestionably monstrosities.

I curtailed my hike down the uninspiring traeth and went for a pint in a pub called The William Morgan, where the barmaid gave me a welcoming smile… then promptly disappeared.  When I at last got my Hobgoblin I found a busy area hoping for some local insight.  But nobody wanted to talk.  Liverpool were on the telly so I supped up and fucked off to Towyn.  There I stealth-camped, got sloshed and wrote the A to Z of things that depress me.

I’ve had a few texts and calls about that post, saying it made for good reading – my friend Kim especially; I used to play “Room 101” with her on drunken nights back in Salford Quays.  I miss her.  She promised to come and visit the Ottermobile in September, which should be good.

The lay-by I chose in which to stealth-camp turned out to be on one of the busiest roads I’ve christened – all night the Ottermobile wobbled as cars sped past, a number of their fuckwit drivers peeping their horns believing I was shagging.  I’m used to that now, it’s just boring, so it didn’t disturb my slumber or my dreams of England (and for that matter dreams of shagging).

This morning I washed, finished the Guardian crossword (which had an irritating crease right through it) and drove to Towyn canol y dref (town centre).  Because I’d been here with my brothers and parents as a small child I wanted to retrace my steps for my novel, especially to see the smallest house in Britain – so small infact that I couldn’t find it!  More truthfully I couldn’t stay long because there was nowhere to park.  Found one pay-and-display at last and got the van stuck under the iron bar – thought I’d do it easy but learned otherwise with an almighty and embarrassing CLANG.  Why do these things happen when there are loads of fucking people about??

With Towyn being a non-starter (or rather stopper) I headed to Rhyl, where I found a similar welcome.  Why these “seaside towns they forgot to close down” don’t do more to boost their tourist footfall God only knows.  This place really did feel impoverished.  I had family holidays here in the 60s – one of the happiest memories of my life is when my brothers and I hired four-wheeled bikes and terrorised the caravan park, tearing down people’s lines of washing.  They felt like dull-weather days but happy, my mum and dad doing their best for us as always, to give us a bit of sea and sun.

I’m afraid not much has altered in 40-odd years – the caravans are more modern but it’s still like heading back in time.  So I end up back in Prestatyn where I know I can at least park.  Made a bacon roll and realised I needed a postcard.  The Card Factory doesn’t have them on its production-line (mental note to sue the bastards on the grounds of Trade Descriptions).  The Post Office was also card-less so I decided to forget the idea and instead went to Tesco for a piss.  The door didn’t lock, the loo wouldn’t flush and there was no soap or hot water.  I yearned again for England so after slashing angrily against the porcelain I cranked up the engine, vowing that next time I visit Wales I’d head for the countryside, because I know that’s beautiful.

I did at least learn some of the language: traeth = beach, araf = slow, yr heddlu = police and, most importantly, allanfa = exit.

Nantwich and the bosom of my friends and family here I come.

Selling and Selling Out

The last week has been more on than off-grid for this traveller.  The Great Yorkshire Show was some spectacle; three days in beautiful Harrogate and the Show itself with its extravaganza of agricultural machinery, horse trials, cattle sales, fairground rides and all sorts.  My role was to help Jayne sell her brilliant artwork and “crafted creatures”, which I was more than happy to do as repayment for her kindness and support with my Romany Project.  It’s great that we’re still friends after all this time.

People watching/listening has always been a passion for me, as a writer and student of humanity.  Here in Harrogate it was tweed everywhere and posh horsey accents mixed with the rag-tag-and-bobtail arriving late in the day when the entrance fee came down to seven quid.  But for all the expensive clothes and upper-class eccentricity (some of these people are absolutely bonkers) I noticed that in these times it’s still a chore to get people to part with their pound notes, however I’m pleased to say Jayne did rather well and I enjoyed engaging with the public and doing my best to peddle her wares with as much charm (or bullshit) as possible.

Yesterday I was in London once again engaging with an audience, hosting a Storytelling Event on behalf of ITV.

ITV STORYTELLING EVENT MAXUS

As you see, I’m not entirely at ease with a microphone and cameras shoved up my nose but again I did my best to look OK (which isn’t easy with my face) and sound knowledgeable.  I was reminded by the way of a similar event some time ago at ITV Leeds, when I told the receptionist (who I knew) that I was giving a talk on what I know about television.  “That won’t take long,” she said.

Anyway yesterday’s session went well and I was very proud to once again be an ambassador for ITV and its Soap brand.  I was billed as a Corrie writer, which is obviously out of date and inaccurate, but that didn’t matter and I didn’t feel minded to contradict.  It was also nice, I admit, to don a shirt and jacket, drink posh wine and yes, travel first class!  Having said that, I had to listen to a fair share of management-speak and people talking about their boring fucking jobs.  One young salesman sitting opposite me (who neglected to wake me up when we arrived at Leeds) said to a caller that he’d make “a tweak-intervention on the price.”  I assumed that meant he’d give discount, and I also mused that it’s tossers like him who made me want to go off-grid in the first place.

So I’m not selling out for good, I just can’t.  From now I’m back on the road and planning a return to Nantwich to see some family and dear old friends.  But I need an MoT (and so does the Ottermobile) so I won’t be going too far yet.  Slowly slowly, and that’s the joy of it.  I can go anywhere I want and when I want.  As long as the wheels turn round and as long as I get to spend time occasionally with people I love, I’m happy.  Regarding the MoT I just hope there’s not too much wrong, otherwise I’ll have to ask for a “tweak-intervention on the cost.”  Jesus, I’m a celibate get me out of here.

The Curse of The Strong

At the time of writing they’re still deliberating about what caused the Fire of London.  Can’t blame me for jumping to the conclusion it was a terrorist act, can’t blame me for questioning.

Talking of which, Jayne phoned last night and asked, not unfairly, what is the point of this blog.  The point is I don’t even really know what a blog is!  I’ve never read one and I never thought I’d be writing one!  So if it’s not a blog is it a travelogue?  I suppose not, not in the Bill Bryson sense anyway.  I never set out to record historical facts about the various places I’ll visit, unless they particularly interest me or they’re pertinent in terms of a hook to hang these scribblings on.  I’m a traveller, a gypsy, not a historian.  Anyway in the end it was agreed that it’s really a diary.  That’s fine with me, so I suppose I should really address what’s the point of the diary?

As I’ve said before, I just wanted to put down my feelings, about me, my life and about things as they happen to me and this beautiful but in some ways fucked-up world.  At times it’s self-indulgent I know, but isn’t that a diary?  And this entire trip is self-indulgent.  For once I’m writing with the freedom from bits-of-kids telling me I’m doing wrong.  I’m doing it for nobody else but me; if my writings gather interest and give entertainment that’s great.  If they don’t I really don’g care.  Because I am selfish.

I define depression as inherently selfish – in that it’s an illness that can only be helped by oneself.  It’s haunted me all my life and nobody, friend or loved-one, can with the best will in the world, really help.  Certainly they, like the drugs, can’t cure it.  In his excellent and recommendable book The Curse of the Strong, Tim Cantopher describes depression as a physical illness, like a machine breaking down, blowing a gasket.  It’s a fair analogy except no other person can be the mechanic but oneself.

There’s no blame for the illness, no reason, other than the genes that make us.  Circumstances can obviously change things, get you down or conversely cheer you up, but it’s always there this black dog, it never goes away, and so complete happiness is impossible.  At times in my life I’ve ostensibly had everything, but this dog has barked and driven it all away, meaning that I have driven away people, material wealth, and very good jobs.

Which leads me to another question: do employers ‘get’ depression?  Do they understand?  I would like to say yes.  But I can’t.  So I won’t.  Something should seriously be done about that.  Depression is a terrible illness as potent a killer as cancer, and from experience I can only conclude that employers’ views of the latter are different to the former.  It’s a generalisation perhaps, but as I say, this is my experience, that employers’ ‘treatment’ of depressives is unfair, misguided and far more damaging than those who dismissively and simplistically tell us to pull ourselves together or cheer up.

Things are changing, I read, the more this is talked about and examined openly and frankly.  I hope so, but will not hold my breath.

Anyway, as I say, this illness has to be handled and managed by myself.  So that’s why I’m doing this blog/travelogue/diary/journey/project; it’s a test of endurance, a self-imposed challenge to see if I can do it, if I can do it alone, achieve my goals such as they are, without breaking down or blowing a gasket (that goes for myself and my clapped-out Ottermobile!)

My self-diagnosis is that these ramblings, both written and walked, are helping; I do enjoy cramming down my thoughts for cyber-eternity.  They make me smile and if they can occasionally make you smile too then everyone’s happy.  If not, I’ll please myself.  If my posts aren’t bursting with Brysonesque wit and knowledge, they compensate me.  I’m visiting nice places, meeting a mixed bag of people or indulging my own agenda.  Nice places are to found in every bed of my enormous garden so far – from Yorkshire to Willaston, Nantwich, Bickerton, Peckforton, Burwardsley, Tiverton, Tattenhall, Delamere, Blakemere, Alvanley… and there’ll be many more nice places to come as I tootle slowly and desultorily towards The Lakes.  That said, at the time of writing I’m heading for Liverpool.

Crewe (5/6/17)

The weekend started with the scent of flowers in St. Ann’s Square, Manchester.  People are right to say you can smell it from Deansgate – the scent, like the depth of emotion, is strong.  The floral tribute is amazing; families wept amid the respectful hush, and I couldn’t help shedding a tear as I read the messages of condolence, some in childish hand, penned by kids no older than many of the victims.

I’m saying goodbye to Media City now, with its beautiful architecture and scenic waters.  I love the place and I’ve loved being here.  Many of the media types say it’s soulless.  It’s the people who give a place its soul, and maybe if they weren’t so dull as fucking ditch-water they might light the place up a bit.

After a lovely final night I packed up The Ottermobile, disposed responsibly of my shitbag (and other refuse) and headed for Crewe.  Seems a strange choice of destination perhaps, but it’s important for the novel I’m writing, and I also wanted to see my brothers and more of my real friends.  I’d been granted permission to camp at The Sydney Arms for a couple of nights but I got a call from my old mate Ash, inviting me to a barbecue round at his.  More on this later, but anyway I ended up parking in his drive and hooking up to his electric.  He’ll dread his next bill.

Weird place, Crewe.  In some ways I owe it, because I lived there for years (most of them striving to get out) raised a family and served an apprenticeship at Crewe Works (British Rail Engineering Ltd).  In those days if you left school with fuck-all, as I did, the doors of the place opened and you found yourself a job.  First wage, £36.02p in a little envelope, ten quid to mum for housekeeping and the rest to blow at The Cheshire Cat or Roosters in Nantwich.  This was where I’d try to get a shag and invariably failed, leaving me to traipse home alone in my Japanese Kimono.  I called myself a New Romantic but others called me a prick.

Which reminds me; when I came back from St. Ann’s Square the other day I bumped into a friend, who was shocked to see me dressed in combats and a rucksack.  The conversation went something like this:

HIM “You went to town dressed like that?

ME “Yea, so?”

HIM “Bit risky mate.”

ME “Why, because I look like a terrorist?”

HIM “No, because you look like a knob.”

Not a real friend, this, one of the contortionists from ITV.  But I digress.  Crewe.  Yea, I do owe it because I made very many real friends, Ash being one of them.  We spent an enjoyable afternoon with his author wife Nikki Ashton (who gave me a signed copy of one of her works) and her mum and Ash’s mum.  The wrong side of 60 but lively and switched-on as teens and great sense of humour.  Conversation ranged from the latest soap plotlines, to the latest atrocity on London Bridge, and the latest meaning of the word “back-door”.

I haven’t been to a barbecue in years, and I welcomed the protein and carbs on offer – some of it served with plastic because Ash left a plate on the hot coals.  I also relished the many G&Ts and my hosts’ remarkable willingness to fetch the bottle often and leave it pouring a long time.  No surprise then that Ash and I were arseholed by the time we ventured into town to meet our old muckers Faz, Ralph, Sav and Gary.

It was great to catch up – hadn’t seen some of these lads in years, but I couldn’t help reflecting on how lifeless is Crewe.  Most of the shops have been dug up and plonked in a retail park some way from the centre of town (on the old site where the Crewe Kings Speedway team raced) and most of the pubs have shut.  I’m no fan of Weatherspoon’s, but this now appears to be the hub of whatever life the town limply offers.  Crewe Works used to employ about 7000 people but now barely exists – it’s almost like the place’s life-support machine has been unplugged and it’s gasping now for breath.  But still, we had a good few laughs.

Walking back to Ash’s was a long and winding road – two steps forward and sometimes three back – and I actually fell over.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde I found myself lying in the gutter and seeing stars.  Luckily Nikki was still up and she could bathe my bloody hands.

Monday was cancelled, partly because it was pissing down, partly because my head was banging.  I noticed my hands were cut, my knees were grazed and there was a gash, inexplicably, on my forearm.  I’d planned to go into town and retrace some steps and see how it’s changed, but will leave it till tomorrow.  Nikki kindly checked on me this morning, to see if I was still breathing, and to invite me in for tea.  I accepted, and asked to stay another night.  I appreciate their kindness and promised I’d be gone tomorrow (as did The Lady in The Van).  But I will.  Next stop will be Nantwich, but I won’t be dressed in a kimono and I won’t be looking for a shag.  Well, not necessarily.