“Suicide” – a Story of Two Worlds Colliding

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The library is full of stories but not just in the books.  While I’m having a warm or doing the crossword or writing, I’m also listening.  Today there was a toddlers’ group singing songs like “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.”  Nearer to me, however, there were two men in their sixties whispering hellos.

“How are you?” asked the first.

“Not so good,” said the second, “my Grandson took his own life yesterday.”

The first man said nothing, not because he was being rude but because, though there were millions on the shelves around him, he couldn’t find the right words.

“24,” added the second man.

That’s all I heard, a tragic and tear-jerking blurb that as a writer got me wanting the rest of the story but as a human-being wanting to know what’s wrong with this world the little singing children will grow up with.

As they continued to warble “If you’re happy” I wondered what drove the 24-year-old to suicide, what made a man with the years stretching out in front of him end his days?  What can be done about this awful state of affairs where the suicide rate seemingly continues to rise?  If you read the Office of National Statistics it’s a very grim tale in this regard.  And finally it got me asking grave questions of myself: though I sometimes think I have nothing to live for, is my life really so bad?  And if it isn’t, should I be ashamed of myself for being depressed and writing such downbeat prose over the past six months?

So in sparing a thought and lighting a candle for this young man I never knew and his grieving family I will never know, I should also be grateful for the gifts I do have and the thing I do know; that despite it all I am still happy.  I know it, and I would really like to show it.

 

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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.

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.”

“Beachy Head (and how to avoid jumping off it)”

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Beachy Head, but I see a Shark’s Head

To continue with the theme of contradiction (see Postcard from a Traveller) here’s a story about my next journey, which isn’t via Ottermobile but is indicative of my eccentric existence over the past 180 days.

I’ve written copiously in these pages about homelessness and poverty and the fruitless search for work and the sickening ignominy of refusal.  But at last I can fill some inches with word of a job, a temporary job, a job for a day, where tomorrow ITV are sending me by train from Nantwich to Eastbourne and there I’ll once again stand onstage sharing storytelling expertise.

I’ll be great at it, I’ll go down a storm as I always do, and it’ll make me me feel ephemeral self-worth, goodness and to boot euphoria.  It sounds arrogant, pompous even, but I don’t care because I just know it, and after all I’m an expert and experts are supposed to know and experts are expert at knowing.

Before the event they’ll put me up in a wedding cake of a hotel a stone’s throw from Beachy Head, in which I’ll digest posh grub, drink expensive wine (if it’s on the house) and sleep in crisp white sheets with my head on huge marsh-mallows.  In my room I’ll make coffee from the kettle I’ll have to keep on the floor because the 6-inch flex won’t reach the socket above the dressing table-cum-writing bureau.

I’ll marvel at the prices in the mini-bar and resist the urge to down the whisky and replenish the bottle with tap water.  I’ll watch TV from my giant bed and channel-hop because I can.  And while I’ll leave the mini-bar shut, I’ll naturally (and with equanimity) nab the toiletries which I’ll reckon are there for the taking.  The trouser-press, however, will be left well alone.  As will The Bible.

After a hearty breakfast, my first in months, I’ll go to work and, as I say, be good at it.  Then, before heading back up North I’ll saunter to Beachy Head.  There, before the rolling tide, I’ll mull over how it went just now, how good I was, how receptive were the guests and how pleased ITV will be with my brief moments in the ambassadorial spotlight.  But I’ll also ask myself some questions:

If I am so good, why am I so bad at managing the black dog and holding down a full-time job?  If I am such an expert know-all, how come I’ve no idea where the next wage will be coming from?  And if I’m so wonderful, how can I only wonder why the hell I’m living in a van?  There will be no answer from the Bible I left behind in the wedding cake, no manual from Neptune, no rhyme or reason from the sea and no explanation from anywhere for the most profound of all – why did I come to Beachy Head?

Some twenty people a year, statistics say, come here to end their days.  In order to stop them there’s a telephone box, a Samaritans sign writ large and surveillance teams on hand.  But of course while all these are worthy and brilliant, I’ll look to myself as I always do for responsibility.

No matter how bad life seems at times, and how powerful the temptation to jump, there’s always something to cling on to.  In my life I have many things: my friends, my family and my loved-ones who’ve been so unfailingly charitable to me over the past long months when I’ve needed them most.  And while I’m standing there with my questions blowing unanswered in the wind, I’ll be remembering them.

I’ll also remember the talents given to me, and that I’m a man on a high from what I’ve just accomplished, for myself and my beloved ITV.  A penniless man with a £500 Mont Blanc pen in my pocket, one of the few things I’ve clung on to as a beacon of wealthier times.  And I’ll see myself as a man deciding positive-thinking is better than jumping, because he’s a man who knows his expertise might come in useful again in the days to follow.

So as for the black dog, he’s the one that’s fed to the sharks.

“Television’s Hal Owen” – A Grave Tale from a Homeless Writer

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Alas, poor Yorick…

I think I got out of the wrong side of my sleeping bag this morning because this court jester is feeling pretty angry.  However, as it’s Halloween let’s channel that anger and turn it into mirth in writing an account of the horror of depression and homelessness.

In previous diary entries I’ve recorded my thoughts on how employers don’t get depression (to clarify, that means they don’t understand it rather than suffer from it) and to revisit and illustrate that theme I’d like to tell a real-life story…

… Some time ago I had a boss whom I’ll call Hal Owen.  How best to describe him?  Let’s say he was so narcissistic he probably invented the selfie, and so far up his own arse he could take a photo of his bowel.

Anyway I’d been down with the dog and needed time off, a lengthy spell to boot, and my employers were admittedly pretty understanding in then allowing me a phased return to work.  We were in a story conference discussing some tale about frozen pipes that caused a house to flood, and to draw from experience (which is what writers should do) I described a visit to a restaurant whose pipes had burst, meaning the pumps couldn’t serve beer and the bain maries were dry.  To flesh out the story I explained that I’d been so down that my friends had taken me out for a meal to cheer me up.

“Bloody hell!” said Hal, “he’s supposed to be off sick and he’s out gallivanting!”

“Not gallivanting,” I countered, “eating.”

That’s what I said, but what I wanted to say was “Even those with mental illness need to eat, you ignorant, vainglorious prick.”

What stopped me from saying it?  Politeness?  Intelligence?  Job preservation?  Probably a bit of all three, but if it was job preservation I regret not saying it, because in the end I lost my job anyway so it wouldn’t really have made a difference.

… It’s memories like this that make me either boiling with anger or send me into paroxysms of laughter, because the sickest joke of all is that Hal is still working, costing the company tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, sitting at his warm desk and going home to his nice cosy house to don his carpet slippers, put his feet up and chuckle to himself at how easy is his life.

In comparison, I’m sleeping in a mummy bag, waking up for a pee at 3am and dithering uncontrollably, living on £4 a day and waiting for the phone not to ring in answer to applications for jobs I’m over-qualified to do, which I could do with my eyes closed yet those in power shut their ears to my pleas, and my home is a tin can called the Ottermobile which can’t be mobile at all because it needs unaffordable diesel to make its wheels turn round.

I repeat that this will induce either fury or laughter, so because I’m naturally more inclined to the latter, I am not asking for sympathy, I tell the story merely to illustrate a point.  But more importantly on a wider scale, my aim is to posit the lack of awareness that certain persons like Hal Owen in high-up places demonstrate, yet those same people like Hal Owen are prospering merrily and blissfully.  How do they do it?  How do they get there?  Well for a kick-off it’s not always about talent or experience, it’s often pure luck, or that their young faces fit, or that they have an innately impressive art and aptitude for networking.

It pains me at times to see this happening, where those untroubled by talent get on whereas others who’re brimming with it, don’t.  A few nights ago a party of us travelled to North Wales to watch a production of The Wyrd Sisters, a vibrant, witty and brilliant story from the Pratchett muse, vibrantly, wittily and brilliantly directed by an old friend of mine called Martin, who has more ‘life experience’ and more talent in his little finger than a good many I’ve worked with down the years have in their entire bodies.  Unlike me, Martin isn’t bitter, but unlike me, he’s housed and gainfully-employed elsewhere.  But I mention him only because if I had the power to do so I’d hire people like him in my line of work and replace some of the mulch that’s unquestioningly allowed to blow along the windy corridors of power.

In those unnecessarily long, arduous and probably illegal days of dreaming up stories for the nation’s favourite soap for example, people like Hal might offer very little guidance, opinion, experience or even ideas for story and say “Pick the bones out of that,” and expect people like me to weave their magic and turn paucity of idea into rich story pickings for the audience.  Like making a silk purse out of a pig’s ear or, as I prefer to say, turning a pile of shit into the greatest story ever told.  Forgive my own vaingloriousness here, but that very often happened for me because I had magic to weave.  And I still have that magic – while my belly might be empty of food, it’s a fiery cauldron of ideas that bubble and gurgle and fuel my soul.

So to be true to my loved-ones who urge me to see the positives, and to be bent on rekindling the fire beneath the cauldron, I will end this tale with an upbeat message:  as long as he has his talent and self-belief, a writer won’t be homeless for ever.  His career might be dead but it will rise from the other side and laugh like a court jester in the face of ignorance.  Pick the bones out of that, Hal.

Keeping Warm this Winter (“For here am I sitting in my tin can…”)

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As the temperature plummeted, last night was the most uncomfortable yet aboard the Ottermobile.  I woke up with icicles hanging from my nose and more than probably elsewhere too.  I’m not one to moan about the weather but it was fucking freezing and I realised it could be time for sleeping bag No2 (pictured above).

I paid a lot of money for this and it’s been stowed unslept-in beneath my passenger seat along with my tools, my gun and my hopes and dreams.  The other bag, which cost about twenty quid from Argos, has served me well through the summer, but last night I noted that I could see through it; just a tissue-thin sheet of cotton between me and my leaky roof.

So as I woke at 4am to pee (and snap off the icicles) I started pondering the imminent winter months and what it’ll be like living them in my tin can.  And shuddered.

Then later in the morning my phone rang; it was a London number and I hoped it’d be work in the offing, but I could hear the background hubbub and quickly clocked that it was a call-centre.

“Good morning am I speaking to Mr Bickerstaffe and how are you today sir?”

“Cold,” I said, bluntly.

“My name’s Cindy (let’s call her that) from Acme Energy (let’s call it that) and I’m calling with an offer to reduce your energy bills.”

“Ah,” I said, “I should tell you that I’m homeless so if it’s offers to reduce my energy bills I shouldn’t waste your time.”

“No problem,” she replied, “Goodbye.”

Now really I should’ve left it at that, but found myself saying “Wait a minute, don’t hang up!  What do you mean “no problem”?  I consider homelessness to be a massive problem, especially as I’m the one freezing his cock off in a van!”

But she’d gone.  Again I should’ve left it there, but it put me in a bad mood as I thought of her in a warm office and going home to a nice fish n chip supper beside the fire.  And shuddered.

Tonight I’m heading south to Stoke (if the Ottermobile will make it) where I’ll meet my son, some old mates and watch the game tomorrow.  It’ll be my first visit to the Bet365 Stadium for three years and I’m looking forward to it, courtesy of my good pal Rog Malkin who’s helping me out with a couple of freebie tickets.  Tomorrow night will be the 150th of my nomadic project and worthy of celebration, or put another way, commiseration.

But it’ll be nice to spend it in a place I love on the day of a Stoke victory, whatever the weather and whether it’s cold or not.

In the coming days I’ll be looking after my friend Gary’s dogs and teaching them new tricks, and I’ll get in the garden doing odd jobs in order to repay his kindness while he and his wife Janet are away.  It’s a big house and a considerable plot the likes of which I dream of, and for a week I’ll be laird.  I’ll still sleep in the tin can though, so they can rest in the sunshine assured that I won’t be venturing upstairs and rooting through their knicker drawers.

This reminds me of an electrician I used to know who confessed that when alone in a house this was his thing.  I’d asked him to have a look at wiring my loft so I could light it and board it out.  But when he told me his pernicious tale I decided I’d risk electrocution and do the job myself.  And shuddered.

No, I’ll be sleeping on the Ottermobile inside my special expensive bag, thinking of James and other homeless folk I’ve met on my travels, who’re less fortunate even than me.  And I’ll be hoping the winter isn’t too inclement or I can find some work to take me off the streets.

Until that day it’s Jobseekers’ Allowance and the kindness of friends and loved-ones and the odd few quid I can make on the side.  To that end I’ll wrap this post up with two questions: 1) when will someone make an offer for my long-lost priceless Lowry painting?  And 2) is there a market for used sleeping bags on Ebay?