Merry Eczema & A Happy New Year

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It was three degrees on the Ottermobile last night, so with me and three beautiful women it was a tight squeeze.  If that were true, I wouldn’t have been much use to them; with temperatures like this your willy tends to disappear.  But I shouldn’t joke.  In fact I don’t feel very much like joking, I’m just aware that some of my writings of late have been downbeat and I want really to entertain.

Yet the truth is that this experience is becoming nigh-on unbearable, and I’m feeling very angry on behalf of myself and those even less fortunate.  I admit it, in the Summer months I was happy on the road, in beautiful weather and even more beautiful surroundings, soaking up the exercise and the stories, and not envying in the slightest those stuck in offices and putting up with the petty politics of back-stabbing.

Now, as we head into the festive season and more importantly towards my 54th birthday, and with the temperatures plummeting, I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching.  In other words, wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life and what the hell it’s done to me.  Incidentally, am I alone in marvelling at the speed with which this year has passed us by?

Anyway, in the days around the corner when we’re supposed to be offering goodwill, I’ll be thinking less of myself and more of those I love and those I’ve met on these geographical endeavours, some of whom are unfortunate enough to be less fortunate than me.

Loyal readers will remember James, the homeless young chef to whom I offered a night’s sleep in my Ottermobile to save him temporarily from the streets, and I fed him and we played Ludo and he said he wouldn’t be coming on to me in the night lest I was worried, because I was far too past it.  I’ll be thinking of him and wondering if he managed at last to find some work, a home and a decent boyfriend of his own age with whom to share it.

Then the down-at-heel guy in Redcar who also lived on a campervan and had a bogie on his nose that fell dangerously close to my sandwiches which I’d kindly offered to share.  He was just like me (only less handsome) and I felt for him, and I’ll be hoping he’s made some hay since that red hot Summer’s day at the seaside when chips were down.

And the gypsy who lives on the motorways, to whom I gave food, tobacco and a ride to the next services and went ridiculously out of my way – a gesture of goodwill that dearly cost me in diesel and mechanical lifespan.  I’ll be thinking of him and hoping he’ll keep warm in his tent come the chill, or he’s made enough money to get him back across the Channel to find work in friendlier climes.

And Craig the youth from Newcastle who was chained bollock-naked to a lamp-post on his stag night.  I’ll be wondering if his lass still married him after that, and if they’ll be spending their first Christmas together in their nice warm home, possibly with a turkey and a bun in the oven.

And last but by no means least I’ll be sparing a thought for Steve in Saltburn, whose wife Tracy kept calling him a useless twat because he forgot the Ambre Solaire and she was worried the sun would exacerbate her eczema (or “exma” as she termed it).  He’d just lost his mother and their trip from Birmingham was supposed to be convalescence, but the sadness in his eyes was obvious, not just because of his bereavement but because he was married to Tracy, and because this was a toxic, flaky and inflammatory relationship that would take more than 100g of Betnovate to smooth things over.

I’ll be hoping he has a merry “Exma” and I’ll be hoping even more that he’s managed to get rid of that fat-arsed, irritable woman.  Because his story touched me most, touched me even more than that of the homeless men and women I’ve met, because I know what it’s like to lose a dear mother and I know how much one needs support through difficult times.  But given that many homeless people are homeless because of a broken-down relationship, I truly hope that if Steve does do what he confided, and leaves Tracy, he manages to keep his job, his home and his kids.

And then there’s me, who suffers from eczema himself but doesn’t make a song and dance about it because there are worse and more dangerous afflictions, such as depression.

But I’ll be trying not to let that get to me as I look towards a new year with someone I love and fresh hope.  I’ll be remembering all those who’ve helped me through difficult times and I’ll be remembering I’m still blessed with talents and the contortionists, like the dog, won’t win.  The contortionists, by the way, will be remembered too, and I’ll be hoping the poor rich bastards don’t lose too many nights’ sleep because of what they’ve done to me.

I turn 54 in the next couple of weeks and I think it’s time to face up to the fact that living in a van at my age in these temperatures will ultimately kill me.  I’ve lived in this thing now for 200 days and I always said it would be 365, yet I don’t look on this as failure.  I believe I’ve recounted many tales in this diary that are proof that what I’ve done has been successfully lucrative if not in the financial sense then definitely in the literary sense.  I firmly believe I’ve collected so much great material for my writings and met some great friends, and rekindled many old friendships too.  I firmly believe I’m a better writer.

In the coming days it’ll be cards I’m writing, but while I’ll know exactly where to send them, I wonder where people will send theirs when I’ve no address to address them to?  I like receiving cards, especially birthday ones, and that’s something I do make a song and dance about – I often joke to my kids that it’s important I reach double-figures.  Sadly, I can’t see that happening this year so I want to do something different and ask simply and politely that instead of buying me a card, would you please make a small donation to Shelter?

Anyway, while I’ll be offering goodwill at this time, because that is my wont, and while I’ll be doing a bit more soul-searching, I’ll also be doing some praying.  Some of my friends will be incredulous but it’s true.  I’ll be praying for all those I’ve mentioned and many more who’re homeless or unfortunate, and I’ll be praying for a brighter future for me, because I know it’s possible and I know it’s just around the corner.  I’ll also be praying that these frosty mornings don’t flare up my eczema!

But if there is a god, I should remember a god is for life not just for Christmas.

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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!

“Rags to Riches”

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Some money

I didn’t jump off Beachy Head so don’t get excited.  I went up there as promised, reined myself in, then came back and stayed the night here…

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The Grand Hotel Eastbourne – “A Palace by the Sea.”

This was where the ITV story event was held, for over 100 eager delegates.  I might write more on this in subsequent posts, but just to say for now that it was a very successful and enjoyable day.  Not least because I met Ian Kelsey.

I’d always admired this brilliant actor, but that day I learned he’s also a brilliant man, intelligent, interesting, friendly and a damn good laugh.  We had lots in common, notably: a) he once worked on the railways, b) he has a dog and thinks I should get one too, and c) he’s a camper-vanner!

Naturally and genuinely, he was interested in my off-grid life and travels and how I’ve tried to come to terms with a career that’s careered, as it were, over the cliff.  We really hit it off and vowed to keep in touch; he even said that if I’m ever down his way I should call in and he’d run me a bath – he’s not the first to offer me this service and it always makes me chuckle because the inference is that I pong a bit!  I am, after all, one of the great homeless unwashed.

Yet here I was briefly turning rags to riches in palatial surroundings where men in top hats opened doors for me and called me Sir (which makes a pleasant change from “Gyppo”).  And I confess it felt rather odd, and not altogether comfortable, because I couldn’t tip the man who showed me to my room and demonstrated how to switch the lights on; I couldn’t afford to buy myself a nice glass of wine with olives; I couldn’t stretch to anything from the mini-bar, and I couldn’t offer a few shillings to the waiter…

Like actors, writers have their professional ups and downs and I’ve written before about feast versus famine.  So while it’s nice to spend a night in such a beautiful hotel, it’s also a teasing reminder of how wonderfully the feast compares and I couldn’t stop thinking, not for the first time in my life, when am I going to get a few quid again?

On the plus side, being minus money reminded me of a little anecdote I’d like to share with you…

Some twenty-seven years ago, my favourite Uncle Arnold popped in to see my beautiful daughter Gabriel, who’d be five, and gave her some money.

“Put it safe,” said Uncle Arnold, avuncularly.

“I will,” said Gabriel.

“Have you got a money box?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“And does your dad ever put money in it for you?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, “with a knife.”

“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.

“Carry On Stealth-Camping”

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A Happy Tramp – 120 and still batting

Not the most flattering picture but I couldn’t give a shit, and anyway who does look their best when they’ve had a couple!?  It’s exactly 120 days since I’ve lived on the road and I make that 1/3 of my project completed, so why not raise a glass in celebration?

But while I’m still lucid I want to keep you abreast of developments.  As you already know, I’ve returned to my hometown of Nantwich where I’m planning a school reunion to fill in some vital gaps in my novel… and to fall in love.  The Ottermobile, which is only just about still gasping its way into life, is parked at my friend Gary’s house, and I want to thank him for being so kind – if you like he’s the Alan Bennett to my Mary Shepherd in The Lady in the Van, but I hope I’m not stuck there for fifteen years!  Anyway that’s where I’m laying my hat at the moment and that’s my launch-pad for the next leg of the journey…

The other day I bumped into a great old pal called Alfie, with whom I walked hundreds of miles back in the day, and fished for barbel in the River Severn.  More on him to follow, but we laughed and joked and talked and talked about all things life and all things writing, and at a visit to a cricket match he gave me another real burst of energy and nostalgia.  I recall a time we trekked happily through beautiful Montgomeryshire, so I think that will be my next destination.  I was so disappointed not to reach Edinburgh and Glasgow as planned, but I worry that my clapped-out van won’t get much further, and I certainly don’t have the money to fix it if it breaks down again.

Being forced to sign on was not my plan either, but needs must, and until I get some proper paid work my journeys have to be more local than John O’ Groats or even abroad.  In this business I’ve climbed the dizzy heights and sunk to the shitty lows; that’s how it is and that’s how the cookie crumbles, and as I’ve said before we are all just one small step away, so watch out and get the beers in while the sun shines.

At times like this it would be very easy to allow the dog back in, but with the help of family, friends and loved-ones I’m refusing to open the door and shunning the “orange” from my mind (see booze and depression).  I’m immersed in my writing and I’m determined to rebuild.  The other day I finished a script in collaboration and am happy to say an agent is taking it on.  It’s a start.

In 1990 when I studied for my Masters Degree I was fortunate enough to meet Alan Bennett, who talked about The Lady in the Van and also about the lot of the struggling writer.  “Keep going,” I recall was his advice, and I still intend to heed it.  What else can you do but bat on?  What else can I do but carry on stealth-camping?  Cheers!

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Nantwich v Didsbury – Nantwich Cricket Ground, September 2017

“What to Cook What not to Cook”

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I’m feeling very happy today, even despite my growing unkempt white hair and increasing resemblance to Andy Warhol.  I’m happy not least because the number of my followers has risen, so here’s to my “fifteen minutes of fame” in cyberspace.  But really I want to talk about survival, and more specifically survival and diet off-grid.  Yesterday I dipped my toe into romantic fiction in terms of dinner a deux.  I enjoyed getting my feet wet and soaked up the readers’ response, but it got me thinking about how, or more pertinently, what I’ve been eating in order to survive life on the road.

But first I’ll set the table as it were; I’d travelled north from Staithes to Saltburn, where I planned to stealth-camp for at least two nights and catch up on the football.  Ah football, not palatable to everybody but essential to my diet – that beautiful game played by twenty-two professionals and watched by millions of expert consumers and critics.  When I arrived on the prom I was lucky enough to get a place, free of charge, with a fantastic view and a stone’s throw from a pub showing Sky Sports.

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Saltburn Funicular Railway

Saltburn is a lovely little place and I liked the town and the charming way it doesn’t pretend.  In general the people were friendly and well-heeled, and I enjoyed listening to their kind of Geordie-cum-Teesside accent – “the Saltburn Vernacular” if you pardon the pun.  I took a ride on the famous railway, reading up on its history and hydraulic mechanism, then a long walk down the clean sands towards Marske while hoping to make a valuable discovery or find a lucky stripy stone.  But it was a Saturday and I’d worked up a thirst for beer and football, so I trekked back to The Marine pub on the prom.  I had a really nice time there, got talking to the locals (stories to follow in later posts) and drank good beer while watching Stoke beat Arsenal.  What more could a man want, except for a good dinner?  So, what to cook what not to cook (mmm… might work that up into a pitch for ITV)?

I prefer to eat as much fresh food as possible and avoid tins.  But this isn’t always practical or indeed affordable, so I always have a stock of tins, along with dry noodles, rice and pasta.  When I embarked on this journey all those months ago, my friend Kim put together a hamper for me, and I suggested Heinz Big Soups, which I remembered from childhood as living up to their name or “doing what they said on the tin.”

I’m sorry to say though, that today I’m somewhat disappointed; what used to be chunky pieces of chicken and veg are now etiolated morsels of not much… except in a bigger tin.  “Go big or go hungry,” runs the slogan, well frankly I’d rather the latter, or more likely reach for the dry noodles.

As I say, I do as much cooking from fresh as possible and get my five a day, and while I’m no Gordon Ramsay (thank God, the man always looks like he forgot to put the turkey in) I like to think I do OK.  Especially with curries, which are my signature dishes as I learned a while back how to do them properly.  Like my life I like them spicy, so I try to make sure the rack is full.  If not, however, or if I’m stealth-camping somewhere not conducive to a four-ring gas operation, I fall back on a tin.  Which leads me to a valuable discovery I did make…

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This is going to read like a bare-faced plug for the brand but I couldn’t give a shit.  I’m a firm believer in giving credit where it’s due, and with Asda’s Chicken Jalfrezi I find it “suits the palate of the consummate curry lover.”  “At just £1 and enough to serve two, its authentic blend of spices in a rich sauce containing bigger-than-bitesize chunks of chicken, it’s a canful of nutritious value that’ll keep you going all day.”  I should add “not in the toilet sense.”

To make a serious point, even when you’re hard-up, on the road and off the grid, you need to eat as well as possible, and you have to stay strong lest you’re attacked by a couple of fuckwits on Tyneside.  In short, you have to survive.  A camp of vanners marches on its stomach, as it were.  But to make a purely cynical point, if Asda are happy to sponsor this advert for its Chicken Jalfrezi, I’m happy to give it its fifteen minutes of fame or else “go hungry”.

Anyway, if I survive this day I will write up the collection of stories I found in The Marine.  One or two of them are delicious.

Fortune Favours the Bold

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The Otter’s Tipple – Whitby

I’m turning back the clock from my bout of thuggery on Tyneside to my one-day stop in Whitby, where I was pleased to get an eponymous pint of Otter.  My welcome wasn’t entirely warm, however; parking was a pain and I had to risk a ‘coaches only’ section, where an officious car park attendant looked at me like she’d clocked a slug on her kitchen worktop.  After I’d squeezed in elsewhere and paid my dues, one of her colleagues confided that the woman is notorious for her anger and you wouldn’t think she used to work for the Samaritans.

“I can only wonder what was the mortality-rate,” I quipped.

I do like Whitby, it holds happy memories that I wanted to chart in my novel.  Today the sun was shining and I relished a long walk over the sands then a climb up to the Abbey for a personal slice of Stoker, who I look up to as a traveller and author.  Then among the jet shops, Steampunk regalia and fairground buzz I reminisced.

Jayne and I came to Whitby often, once with my son Dom when we sailed on a boat.  One time though we had our fortunes told, for a laugh as much as anything, given my scepticism of clairvoyance.  Reading our palms, the lady said that Jayne drove a blue and silver sports car.  True, though I suspected she’d seen us drive in.  She said I’d never find a truer friend than Jayne.  Probably true.  And she read that my father was ill but was being well cared-for and would be OK.  Mostly true except two months later he was dead.

I shouldn’t mock.  Some people put great store in such things, whereas I believe in chance.  Like it was chance that determined I’d be attacked in my van…

I’ve had a number of welcome responses to Friday’s diary (The Night I Was Attacked) most from people who were obviously concerned.  It was great to know that people cared about me, and even better that my kids and other loved-ones were among the well-wishers.  One very loved-one asked “Why the hell are you putting yourself through this shit?”  It’s a very simple, very fair and very valid question and one I’ve asked myself many times since the start of this project.

I’m a writer.  I can’t do anything else.  Some say I can’t even do that!  But that’s my chosen field, the profession for which I trained for years, my calling from which I can’t run.  And if I’m not employed or indeed employable given my age and mental health (see Don’t Rain on My Parade) I can’t just do nothing but wait for the phone to never ring.  I’ve got to get out in search of story, in search of some things and some people to write about.  I also have to get through each day, ideally without harm or prejudice, and live with the little that chance has given me.

But although the question is valid, it’s valid also to flip it:  Why the hell do I put myself through this shit?  Or, Why the hell have I been put through this shit?  Is it fate?  Is it the cards I was dealt?  Or just chance and that’s just the way the stick of rock crumbles?  Whatever it is and whatever life throws at you, you have to fight back, you must be brave.  My Latin’s a bit rusty shall we say, but I think it’s audentes fortuna iuvat – fortune favours the bold.  Sometimes though, we’re emboldened with the help of others.

Like the otter is making a comeback, in part with the help, support and effort of humankind, I will make mine, either on my own or:

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