The Black Dog

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I was thinking of getting a dog.  This news will come as a shock to many of my friends but to a few it’ll be welcome because they’ve suggested a dog would be company during lonely nights on the Ottermobile.

In the past I’ve written disparagingly on this subject but I think I’ve been clear that it’s dog-owners rather than dogs that get my goat.  So why did I suddenly feel I wanted one?  Because of loneliness?  For company and love?  Because it could chase the black dog away?  I could teach it tricks?  I could train it to go and fetch my newspaper?  Or use it as a prop for the purposes of begging?  All those things perhaps, but it’s a fact that on my travels I’ve met many dogs and they’ve seemed to take a shine to me.

Take Rachel and her little pooch in Filey, which had me happily playing “fetch” for ages and wouldn’t let me rest.  And Gary and Janet’s three mutts in Nantwich, which I’ve become very fond of.  In fact, they go on holiday later this month (Gary and Janet not the dogs) and I’ve offered to look after things in their absence to repay their kindness, and I’m determined to teach them new tricks (the dogs not Gary and Janet).

So I was pondering the pros and cons, the arguments for getting a dog which are many, and the arguments against.  I guess it’s the same with dogs as it is with people.  I’ve met hundreds of people on my journey so far, a great percentage of them very nice, decent, kind, civil and clean.  But there have been some who are complete shits, or not nice, decent, kind, civil or indeed clean.

I’ll provide an example to illustrate my point:  At a campervan park near Alnwick, Northumberland, a fellow campervanner came for a chat.  It was early in the morning and I was pre-shit, shave and shower.  Now I don’t mind being sociable at all, I’m a people-person, but I’d rather be a people-person when I’ve woken up properly and had a decent bowel-movement and a wash.  This man, called Fred, was clearly of the opposite point-of-view, being unshaven, unwashed and bearing morsels of his breakfast in the corner of his mouth.

He asked how long I was staying and I explained I was moving on (once I’d washed) because I actually live on the van and I was heading north to Scotland if the van could make it there.  Suitably impressed, he explained he was just there for two nights with his missus and their dog then would return home to Yarm.

So impressed was he with my story that he wished he could do the same; kick the rat-race into touch and take to the road.  He was a nice enough fella I suppose was Fred, but he was not one to obey the laws of body-space and all the time he spoke he kept spitting, and tiny droplets of spittle kept hitting my face.  Also, there remained the morsel of breakfast which was working its way centre-stage on his lips, where it dangled for it’s dear life like some tiny man on a clifftop.

In my work as a storyteller and a “soap opera expert” I’ve often talked about cliffhangers, and this was a real-life one where I (the audience) was waiting to see what happened to the tiny morsel of breakfast.  This would’ve been fine in the dramatic sense, but for me it was all rather unsettling because I feared that when this thing lost its fight for life it would fly off the lippy clifftop and land on my face with the rest of his spittle.

Typical of my luck, that’s exactly what happened and I was forced to endure the rest of the interminable conversation without wiping it off hence drawing attention to it.  A similar thing had happened back in Redcar where a fellow-homeless campervanner had a bogey hanging off his nose and it eventually fell perilously close to my sandwiches.  Well this was an even worse horror as I traumatised myself over whether to tell my audience something was amiss.

So as this morsel of breakfast rested on my lip after leaving his (a kind of quasi-homosexual kiss) I frankly felt wretched and filthy.  And when at last he returned to his van he was greeted by his smiling wife and gleeful dog, which jumped up at him… and licked his face.

I could forgive dog-lovers like Gary and Janet for thinking me shallow, but I couldn’t help feeling that if Fred’s dog was apt to lick his face, he’d already done so that morning, the thought of which made me feel doubly wretched and filthy.  And when I think back to this, I realise that on the whole I’m not really a doggy person and the reasons against getting a dog just about tip the balance.  So in which case I should stick to my guns, stay dog-less and rely on a human-being for warmth, obedience, company and unconditional love.

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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.

 

Down and Out in Crewe and Nantwich

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Not much has changed since my hero wrote this book.  When the wheels fell off my van, as it were, I travelled back to my roots to rebuild my life and career, but to do so I needed help from the State.  I documented my signing on with some humour and compliments to the service provided, but once again Big Mouth Struck Again…

I’m sure I’ll go into more detail next week but today I can’t really be bothered to write at length – I just don’t feel like it because the black dog is back in the room.

In brief, they (meaning the State) said the change of care-of address would be seamless, it wouldn’t disrupt my claim at all.  But after a fortnight with nothing paid I used a friend’s landline to speak to them… after being on hold for what felt like more than a fortnight.  Turned out the signing-on day I’d been given was wrong, so I’ll have to wait another week before the system can pay me any money.  My plea that I haven’t got so much as the price of a cup of tea, and I need to travel to Manchester for important potential work meetings, and this administrative error was not my fault, met with sympathy, I admit, but there was nothing the lady on the phone could do in terms of any emergency payment.  Nothing for it but to sit tight and wait.  Or starve.

So what does one do to get a cup of tea?  Well I guess I am one of the lucky ones in that I have very good and kind friends.  People like homeless James, to whom my readers may remember I gave a bed in the Ottermobile for a night, and others I’ve met on my travels, are less fortunate.  I have, among others, my brother Podge and my friends Gary, Janet and their lovely family.  For days now I’ve “stealth-camped” in their drive and they’ve fed me and given me wine to keep me going.  What on earth I’d do without them I don’t know, because the black dog has been scratching at the door and threatening to chew me up.  There is nothing in the State system, no boxes to tick, to process that particular claim.

Liz Dawn Tribute – the story of nearly going on telly

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“No more telly!”

A strange thing happened yesterday – I was invited to appear on ITV’s Granada Reports, which just goes to show you wake up in the morning and never really know what to expect!

The story goes as follows:  I’d written a tribute in this diary to Liz Dawn and the ITV News Editor read it, then emailed to ask me to phone him.  I replied that I’ve got no credit but would be happy to talk so would he call me?  Sure enough, half an hour later the mobile rang and it was he; a nice young fellow who wanted to hear some of my anecdotes about Liz.  I duly obliged and he seemed suitably entertained, at least enough to invite me to appear live on air that night.  I must admit this was hugely flattering, both that he’d read my blog and that he wanted me to go on telly.  He was aware that I’m a homeless traveller and asked was I local enough to get to Manchester, or if not he’d arrange transport for me.  Again I was flattered but I declined his offer.

Later, I told Jayne about this unexpected invitation and she asked why the hell I turned it down.

“You’ve done TV before,” she said, “You’ve done the Southbank Show!”

“Yes,” I said, “and proved I’ve got a face more suited to radio.”

“I know,” she said, “but still.”

“Thanks,” I said.

People say the nicest things.  This reminds me of a time when I was talking to a young lady in Salford Quays who wanted to know why I was single:

“Because I’m fat and ugly,” I explained.

“Rubbish!” she cried, “You’re not fat!”

I often think about this and chuckle to myself.

But I digress.  That wasn’t the only reason I turned down the invitation.  I would’ve been nervous, yes, but also I was tired, my belly was empty, I was unshaven, I’d got no ironed shirts and I just didn’t feel up to it.  But more than anything I would’ve felt a bit of a fraud, appearing under the TV lights recounting happy memories of a brilliant servant to Coronation Street when right now I’m on my arse.  It sounds a bit plaintive, pathetic even, but that’s how it is, that’s how it would’ve felt, I can’t get past it, I just wasn’t up to it.

Also, I would’ve felt like a cheat because the show I’ve always loved is out of reach as I rarely get a signal on the Ottermobile’s TV – in fact I haven’t watched it for a while and I miss it like mad.  But that’s a price you pay for homelessness.

But if I learned anything about yesterday it was that my diary at least gets read, I have an audience, and that felt good.  It also felt good that though I was unable to appear on TV, or even to watch it, I’d paid my respects to Liz and made someone else chuckle as I retold stories I’d written for her, in what I like to think were some golden days of Coronation Street.  I also learned that my phone still rings.

Friends Reunited

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A very good friend getting things in hand

At times like this you realise who your friends are.  That’s real friends not fair-weather.

Yesterday I visited Ash and Bubble, two dear old pals who loyal readers might remember I stayed with before the first leg of my travels all those moons ago.  He’s a painter and she’s an author and one of her books entertained me through some lonely nights on the road.  Ash’s lovely mum Jean cooked a Sunday roast, a rare and delicious treat for the homeless, pot-less nomad.

In the evening, Ash and I met with the usual Sunday crowd: Ralph, Faz, Gary and Pete.  They knew I was broke and bought me beer all night.  I regaled them (or more likely bored them shitless) with tales of my travels, and we laughed and joked and talked of all things from politics to reminiscences to football to sex – or in some cases lack of.  And it was great to be back.

In the rain and with plaited legs, Ash and I trekked back to his place where my Ottermobile waited patiently for me to “stealth-camp” in the drive.  En route, he stopped for a pee and I couldn’t resist taking the snap above, then telling him a stock joke of mine:  One day on the road I was caught short in the woods, so dropped my trousers to do the deed.  Next day I went back and noticed the product of my labour was gone.  I was bemused.  Until the man who owned the house nearby collared me and angrily proclaimed, “Gotcha!  You’re the bastard who took a dump on my tortoise!”

But I return to the point of this diary entry – that of the need of friends when the chips are down.  I’ve been so lucky in the past few months; Jayne has been a pillar of strength, my brothers have rallied, Mandy’s been a wonderful companion, my kids have come knocking and my friends (or most of them!) have put their hands in their pockets.  Without all those people I could possibly have gone under, succumbed to the dog and caved in under abject pressure of poverty.  It’s thanks to them that I am strong, that I am still standing and refusing to go quietly.

Yet like my good friend Ash, I have to get “things” in hand.  I’ve always said that people like me have a responsibility to themselves and others to somehow “bimble” through.  To that end I’m still writing like mad.  I mentioned the script that’s with an agent who’s buying us lunch in Manchester next week – well it’s keeping me going and giving me a shout.  But there’s also my novel that I’ll be peddling too, plus this blog in the hands of a TV director and a stage play that’s nearing completion.  I make no bones that I’m prostituting myself with these revelations, putting myself back in the market-place and unashamedly so.  And I’ve always said that even though I’m on my arse I have my imagination, the ability to tell a story, the yearning for more of the material that stocks the creative larder and finally the hunger for the story fire that’s fed my belly.

As wonderful as it is to have the support of friends, I’m not entirely comfortable with their charity (if that’s the right word) and I absolutely hate being broke.  So I make it my mission, nay my promise, to get back on my feet and repay the unquestioning kindness they’ve offered.

What’s it all about Alfie? (A Love Story)

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Two old goats for neighbours on my travels – or L to R Alfie, Me

Bimble (v) walk or travel at a leisurely pace

Thanks to my old school pal Fred Parker, who gave me this word in response to my question in Five Go Off to Stealth-camp.

The eponymous Alfie (AKA Roger Hinde) is the very old friend I referred to yesterday and the story of our reunion is as follows:  I was in Nantwich Library trying to sign on (a soap opera in itself) when I heard this voice proclaim, “You’re not allowed in here!”

“Bollocks,” I said to myself, then turned to see Alfie, looking no different from when I last saw him some ten years ago as he visited my apartment in Castlefield Manchester.  At the time I was Coronation Street Story Editor and his visit was a welcome break from the very long hours of creative toil.

Now, at the grand old age of 66 (same age as my brother Podge – they went to the Grammar School together) there was still the boundless energy and twinkle in his eye.  In his younger days when he was treading the boards he would’ve passed for a David Essex lookalike with his cheeky grin and Romany ruddiness.  “The years have treated you well Alfie,” I said mid-manhug.  But how wrong I was, as he soon went on to tell me he’d had cancer for five years and nearly died.

I’ll go deeper on this later but first I’ll describe the buoyant reunion of us two old goats as I invited him aboard the Ottermobile for a brew.  Because with Alfie you never get to finish a story – much like a soap opera.  As conversation fizzles, you’re energised and carried away on the tide of wit and keenness.  You try to compete with his joie de vivre and the stories it offers.  Your anecdotes are wittily interrupted by his, and the chat crackles into creative avenues you didn’t realise were on the A to Z.  In a nutshell you’re inspired.

One of our reminiscences was about “bimbling” through the English and Welsh countryside, normally via river or canal, a pursuit we followed often, and often with fishing tackle on our backs.  As I touched on yesterday, we once fished at the Tern Mouth of the River Severn, where he knew barbel liked to chew Spam.  I’d never seen a barbel before, let alone catch one, so imagine my surprise and delight when I pulled out this beautiful huge fish, before of course putting it unharmed back in the water.  But as always with these things there has to be a cloud, in the form of Alfie’s sulking because my barbel was bigger than the tiddler he reeled in!  He will of course dispute this claim.

Back in the day, and I’m talking twenty-odd years ago, along with other arty projects we formed a theatre company called Grand Junction with a view to touring a series of playlets about the history of Crewe’s railways.  But we got bogged down in all the politics of Equity and the Independent Theatre Council so the project was back-burnered.  Also my 18-month work in Rwanda impeded matters somewhat.  This was the selfish pursuit of a career that I’ve referred to earlier, which meant leaving friends behind… and ultimately the disintegration of my first marriage.

Anyway amid these and other unfinished yarns, he had coffee, a bag of crisps and a bar of chocolate from the Ottermobile larder; pretty much my weekly ration.  And I realised that despite his health scare he still had that ravenous appetite to eat seven more potatoes than a pig.  And he didn’t even bother to wash his cup, the fucker.  But I forgave him that omission as he described how close to death he’d been, which made crockery pale into insignificance.

But for me it also put things into perspective as he recounted that when it was “touch and go” he received many visitors genuinely offering help and favour, but then when he recovered these visits gradually abated – a story of fair-weather friends and their disappointment that Alfie didn’t die, that Alfie had this indomitable determination to pull through and prove to the bastards he wouldn’t shuffling off the coil without protest.  Hence I observed parallels between his story and mine, and the realisation of what’s really important, what life is really all about ie. its delivery of friends and loved-ones, which are more important through thick and thin than any politics or any wealth a career might afford.

Mine and Alfie’s bromance was a mini soap opera with its highs and lows.  We’d chew the fat, set the world to rights, deconstruct the arts of writing and acting and downright act the goat.  We’d fall out like lovers do, and rein each other in from our propensity to get carried away with an idea.  He’d be grumpy and truculent and I’d coax him into working that energy into script and performance.  I’d be down and he’d lift me with a well-timed pun or a “nosegay” of Pete and Dud or a snippet from Last of the Summer Wine.

And I’m happy that the bromance will now be rekindled.  We’ll probably write together again, free from the shackles of politics, unleashed from the need to please others.  We will have fresh adventures from the Ottermobile.  And we will undoubtedly bimble.  But above all, we will laugh and laugh.

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Old goats at the cricket – L to R, Compo, Clegg, Foggy, supporting cast

 

“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