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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The Penalty of Homelessness, Unemployment & Depression

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Yes I hold my hands up it’s a very downbeat title for a post, but I’m afraid it perfectly summarises my mood.  So to begin on a lighter note, I had several kind and positive missives following yesterday’s entry, most of which encouraged me to go against judgement and get myself a canine companion.

But what I didn’t mention in my peroration of the subject was that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to look after myself let alone feed, walk, train and love a dog.

A case in point happened recently when I travelled to Salford Quays to try and drum up some work and stealth-camp in wealthy environs.  My old friend Kim had been saving post that’s still being delivered to my apartment, which I was forced to give up in March.  Among the shit-brown envelopes were two from the NHS, charging me a penalty totalling circa £130 for signing a prescription exemption without due authorisation.

Now let me make it clear that I am guilty as charged because though I was homeless at the time, I was not officially unemployed as I was not then claiming benefit, but only because I’d naively assumed that I wouldn’t be eligible without a fixed abode.  In mitigation, however, and I hope, I was penniless and depressed and badly needed medication.  So what was I to do?  Well to be frank it was get the meds or cower to the black dog.  So I went for the former.

These were dark and ‘orange’ days I’m referring to (and for which I send a bouquet of barbed wire to the dog and some humans by way of thanks) whereas latterly I’d been in a much better place, mentally if not financially.  But then to get this penalty notice it popped the bubble in my spirit-level.

Anyway what can you do?  Well you can write to the creditors and argue your case for the defence.  A good idea except there isn’t an address on the letter, only a number to call or an online form to complete.  With no credit on my mobile, I opted for the online service on which I wrote a lengthy plea…

While pleading guilty to the crime, I testified that I wasn’t at the time and am no longer at the address in Salford Quays, in fact I don’t have an address at all as I am living in my Ottermobile.  Furthermore, at the time of the criminal activity I was desperately depressed and unable to pay the price of a prescription.  It’s unhelpful, I suggested, to receive letters like the above and I would’ve hoped that the medication cited on the prescription might give a signal that all was not well with the defendant.  Admittedly my case is probably buried deep within a computerised system and it would be naive to assume each case is investigated to its fullest, but as I pointed out in my defence, it might not be the best way forward to pursue damages incurred as it’s unlikely I’d be in a position to cough up.

Even further to that, in asking them not to write to the given address in future, I wondered where and how they could find me to take the matter further eg. litigation?  I hereby confess to chuckling ironically at the notion of their manhunt and what might happen if my case for the defence meets with negativity.  Will they send me to prison?  Well, at least I’d have a home, a roof over my head, and they’d know precisely where to send their letters.  Or will they send in the bailiffs?

Well, that makes me chuckle too, because there more than likely isn’t 130 quid’s worth of chattels onboard the Ottermobile to cover my debt to society.  I guess they could take my broken TV, my walking boots and my kitchenware.  If they did, I truly and absolutely wouldn’t have a pot to piss in.

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.

 

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.

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The Story of Booze and Depression

IMG_2279So this is Salford Quays, Media City UK, where some time ago I was drunk and nearly burned down an apartment block.

I make it clear that I’m not proud.  I’ve told some people the story and laughed and made them laugh, but it’s time to face the shameful truth.  My eldest brother Podge was a firefighter, proudly decorated and making the papers for heroically saving a little boy’s life…  What have I achieved?  What kind of hero am I?  I’ve never been an aggressive drunk, on the contrary I’ve always been a merry one, but certainly idiotic and irresponsible, decorated in this instance by only shame.  But it’s part of my story and if you’ll bear with me you’ll see the reason for my recounting it.

Not for the first time in my life I was in a bad place, not financially or romantically or geographically – I had work in TV, I had a lovely girlfriend and I lived in a beautiful location – but mentally the location wasn’t so lovely or beautiful.  I loved my apartment and all the chattels I’d built around me.  It was my Sabbath and I set ready for Gillette Soccer Saturday, bent on blowing my mind on a cocktail of football and booze.  Come half-time I was tanked-up.  I’d prepped a curry the night before and all I needed was to heat it up and boil some rice…

Just to put this in some more topical context, Grenfell Tower had cladding which was seemingly the main cause of its devastatingly tragic loss of life (apologies incidentally for jumping the gun in an earlier post and presuming it was terrorism).  The place I lived in on the Quays had no such cladding, but the windows didn’t open.  I don’t mean they were stuck, I mean they were designed that way, I believe because of the dust from the timber yard nextdoor.  In fairness, the lettings agent made me aware of this before I signed, but I was desperate to get a roof over my head and be close to work.  I built my nest and the windows weren’t an issue until my first summer, when I realised just how hot it was, and how even as much as breaking wind brought me out in a sweat.  Some dear people I know still live there and I wonder what they feel about all this post-Grenfell.

… So the curry’s in the oven, the rice is on the boil, and I am on the piss.  Some time later, well past full-time, I was woken by the piercing scream of fire alarms and opened my eyes to see nothing but dense fog.  Still under the influence, it took a few second to realise a) where I was, b) what the din was, and c) that the pan on the hob had burst into flames.  Knowing I had to stay low, I crawled to the sink, reached for the tea-towel, drenched it and threw it over the pan.  Now the flames were doused I became aware of the frantic hammering on my door, the corridor alarms also screaming and voices shouting “what the fuck’s he doing in there!”

Unable to breathe properly, I was forced to evacuate along with all the others, and though there was no fire, the fear among my neighbours was palpable, as was the annoyance of the fire officers who were quick to tell me how much my carelessness and stupidity had cost – in pound sterling if not in loss of lives.

I repeat I don’t record this with any attempt to sensationalise or even entertain, I do so to illustrate what depression and alcohol can do to me if given half the chance.  I diced with death, it could’ve been full-time for me.  I was ashamed.  I am ashamed.  It’s not a good idea to go cold turkey, I have that on good authority, but I can’t use that as an excuse to keep drinking to excess.  It’s a constant battle to be moderate , and that’s another reason why this adventure has helped – getting legless in the privacy of my own home is one thing but when I’m on the road it’s absolutely taboo.  That day taught me a vital lesson and just as when I was at school, I was slow to learn it…  However, yesterday I said I’d find a pub to watch Gillette Soccer Saturday.  I didn’t in the end, and that’s a start.

Of course with no paid work coming in I don’t have the money to indulge so that helps too.  But the most important epiphany for me is that there’s no fun on a vicious circle, no pride on the alcoholic’s ring-road, no use in getting up to get down again.

Coping with mental illness can be achieved in other ways too of course… last night I was lucky enough to get a signal on the Ottermobile and watch Billy Connolly: Portrait of a Lifetime.  Billy Connolly has always been a hero to me – my friend Ash and I once saw him at the Hammersmith Odeon and we laughed until we cried.  The portraits in last night’s show were amazing, but not more so than Connolly’s indomitable stance against his Parkinson’s Disease.  I admire him as ever and can look to him for inspiration.  I can also make it my mission to trek around Scotland and finish up in his home town of Glasgow and see the portraits in the flesh.

The programme had a profound effect on me, not least because it sparked a conversation with my daughter Gabby, finishing with exchanges of “I love you.”  It’s things like this that can make you drunk with happiness, lasting happiness which can’t be found in bottles of quick-fix plonk.  Gabby said it was sad to see Billy so frail and this also impacted on me; I thought I’m a relatively young man, I should be fit and healthy.  I’m still able to walk for miles and miles and not run out of puff, but I must keep it that way.  I must make the fullest use possible of the number of breaths and heartbeats I have left.

 

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!

Baby Wipes

I did buy deodorant.  It’s called Sure but I’m not sure it’s going to be enough.  Thank God for Baby Wipes!  This reminds me of living in Rwanda and the African Great Lakes during the Genocide of the 90s.  I’ll blog more in future on that wonderful if frightening experience, but for now I want to talk about my quest to stay clean while living off-grid.  Given my leaky water pipe I’m relying on baby wipes and it reminds me of my life in the African fields because I feel I’m giving off the sweet and sour perfume of baby wipes and shit.

Maybe it’s paranoia, or my mind and nostrils playing tricks.  But anyway I was glad of a bit of sun this morning after a wet weekend, as I filled a bucket with spring water and washed my hair, allowing the sun to dry it and the gentle breeze to style it.  I say style it, I’m actually growing it, and it’s at that stage when it looks crap.  A real friend called Kelly, a hair-stylist by trade, advises me to keep trimming it round the ears.  I will take her advice but am afraid of the Ottermobile suddenly rocking and I finish up doing a Van Gogh and chopping off an ear.  How would I wear my sunglasses?  Or live life listening to music in mono?

Like my late father I used to be dapper.  But now it doesn’t work that way, I’m spending every day trying to keep clean and dress somewhere between practical and respectable.  Sunshine is a Godsend for the off-gridder because shorts and T-shirt are easy, everyone is wearing them, so they’re a sartorial leveller offering no distinction between the rat-racers and the unwashed.

This interests me.  It’s a desirable lifestyle I’ve chosen but it makes me feel less than desirable.  I mention my hair that won’t behave itself, and staying with the follicle theme I managed to shave yesterday owing to my ITV commitments, where I needed to look respectable (not that people in TV are generally that bothered about such things).  In a tight space like the Ottermobile it’s not so easy with a wet shave, becoming a chore rather than a pleasure.  I don’t enjoy it and once again I fear for my ear.  I already have a Goatee but I think I’ll go the whole hog.  Better to have a beard and two ears than be clean-shaven and unable to hear someone say I look good.

But how will I look?  Unwashed?  Like a tramp, a tatterdemalion, a hobo?  And will I care?  I used to care, but do I any more?  Will I lose my self-respect because I’ve chosen to opt out?  Does opting out of society mean opting out of washing?  Of course not, not for me, it’s not in my nature.  So until I get the water pipe fixed the baby wipes will do.  Vanity might’ve vanished, Narcissus may have been left in the mirror of my swanky apartment in Salford Quays, but I have to take some self-respect on the road with me.

In Media City I’ve had my share of company.  My real friend Kim is giving me a lift to Home Bargains later for a fresh supply of spring water.  We’ll no doubt have a glass of wine afterwards, hopefully in the sun outside the Dockyard.  Talking of which, I’ve just been listening to some BBC lanyards talking shop.  One of them said something was “hash-tag-tastic”.  I called him a hash-tag-tosser.  Now work is done I realise I soon need to leave all this behind.  Partly because people are beautiful and smart here and I smell of baby wipes and shit.  Partly because I’ve had it with the Media tossers and I need to hit the road.

Nobody with me, nobody getting on my tits, no contortionists (see previous blog “The Erection Campaign”).  Nobody telling me what to do, nobody telling me I need to be in a certain place at a certain time, nobody telling me I stink of baby wipes and shit.  Suits me.  I want to be alone.  So who wants me?

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