“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.

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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?

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.

“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

“Five Go Off to Stealth-Camp” – a teenage adventure story

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Shropshire Union Canal, Acton

Coddiwomple (v) To travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination

This word was introduced to me by a loyal reader of these diaries, to whom I give thanks because a) I love to learn new words, b) it just about sums up my journeys over the past 120 days or so, and c) it’s the kind of old-fashioned-sounding word I would’ve used when I was small and reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books.  These chimerical adventures hold special memories for me, not least Five Go Off in a Caravan, which stayed with me and I like to think inspired me to one day do what I am now doing ie. live and travel in a van.

But there must be another word that could equally encapsulate this new leg of my travels in which I meander at narrowboat-pace through the days of distant past, which has three-fold import – to fatten my novel, to banish the dog (there is no dog in this Famous Five story) and to rebuild my life.

To that end I’m co-organising a school reunion.  In 1974 I was lucky enough to pass my 11-plus so would spend the next five years stumbling adolescently and pimply through an education at Nantwich & Action Grammar School (I say lucky because I know I got at least one question wrong in the exam – Is France an island? to which I answered yes!)  No wonder I’ve got lost many times on this journey!

But in reacquainting with old school pals I’ve been amazed at how many memories flood back, and how the buzz and energy of the process have induced into me a thirst and hunger for life.  The other day, for example, I walked with my old friend Mandy along the Shropshire Union Canal.  It wasn’t coddiwompling – the destination was far from vague, it was with the specific aim of finding a place where forty years ago, aged 15, we camped.

To the right of the photo above was a coppice where we pitched the tent, or in truth a crude piece of canvas with no ground-sheet, with no food, no water, no washing facilities and indeed no common sense.  The Famous Five were me, Sid, Tarty, Bryn and Steeley – Mandy would arrive next morning in her long black coat, an apparition gliding along the towpath through the mist to bring some order to the flatulent, pubescent chaos.

We’d earlier been to a youth club in Nantwich, playing snooker on a bumpy table and drinking illicit cans of Skol.  I’m not sure when exactly the camping idea was mooted, or why I decided to go along, but mooted it was and decide I did.  And as we got fired up about it, voices must’ve been raised and overheard by the older boys… which I’ll come to later.

Anyway, given the paucity of our tackle, the inexperience of the aforementioned Five, and the lack of permission to camp, I suppose we were stealth-camping, long before it was even invented.  So we off-grid pioneers bedded down in the mud with the intention of sleeping, somewhat deluded given the grotesque game of Twister, the teenage ribaldry and the propensity to fart in each other’s faces.  I remember one in particular as Bryn bedded down with his head dangerously close to my arse, and I skilfully waited a few moments before letting one go; a yard-long rasping trumpet that lifted the roof.

“Fucking hell!” he shrieked, and that, in terms of sleep, was that.  Amid blame and counter-blame I was banished from the tent into the trees… where between bouts of laughter I made out at least three figures scurrying along the towpath opposite, and knew instinctively that these were the big boys from the youth club.  So I took my position behind an oak tree and listened for the fallout.

Sure enough, within moments I heard the plaintive cries of Steeley, the often picked-on member of the Five (probably because he was a ginger) as he was grabbed and carted, kicking and screaming, to the bridge.  Still shaking with laughter, I listened out as his final plea was ended with an almighty splash into the cut, before the three figures scurried gleefully back from whence they came.

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Steeley’s View from a Bridge

When I returned to the tent, all the fallout from my fart was forgotten; concern was now for Steeley and getting him dry and keeping him warm.  “Bastards!” he kept saying, “Why me?”  So we huddled together, guilty and fart-free, and waited for morning.

When Mandy came we hoped she’d have meat-paste sandwiches and lashings of ginger beer, but the cupboard was bare.  Why she came I always wanted to know (one day she might tell me she came for me) but we were grateful for a beautiful and friendly face and of course feminine concern for the sodden Famous Five.

I don’t apologise for indulging this, for coddiwompling through this memory, the point of which is to record an important slice of my life, a happy memory I look forward to sharing with the other four (if they’re still alive) when we do the Big Reunion.  But there’s an added significance for me, because the coppice is still there and the bridge has stood the test of time.  So pausing on there, forty years on, gazing at the very spot that we all huddled together, the Famous Five or Six, I felt young again, invigorated, thinking that while the memories might be vague at times, my destination’s becoming clearer, and happier.

I can only wonder what that word is that could best describe my journey right now.  But I do know this; a little bit of nostalgia can do me good, a tiny crumb of comfort from the fact that not everything changes can nourish my soul, and a flash of magic was what I needed.  But while I have one foot back on the grid there’s still the gypsy in my soul and he’ll travel as much as he can through his memories, telling stories about characters living or dead.  Thanks to Enid Blyton (in my view a storyteller unfairly sniffed at) and all the others down the years who inspired me to write, to fire my imagination, my story will go on.  Admittedly, five scruffy teenagers farting in each other’s faces isn’t the stuff of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy the Dog, but farting was our currency and the stuff of Acton legend, so not to be sniffed at either!

Guardian Angel

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The Guardian Prize Cryptic Crossword

I’m winding forwards, as is my wont, to the here and now, because I wanted to share some good news… that Jayne phoned to say I’d won the Guardian Prize Crossword the Saturday before last!  A parcel had arrived, and a letter congratulating me on my win.

It’s not the prize that’s important it’s the kudos, which I’m sure other crossword freaks out there will appreciate.

My late mother taught me how to do the “croggy” many years ago and it’s been a passion ever since.  On my travels, during the trials and tribulations, the Guardian Cryptic Crossword has been my friend and saviour on many occasions, when I could lose myself, forget the loneliness, kick out the black dog, get into the head of the compiler and take him or her on.  To complete the grid, as I did last Saturday week, fills me with great satisfaction, pride and a sense of achievement.  To win it fills me with great joy and smugness.

On a Saturday I’ll always hear from my friend Ralph, who likes to wave his cock when he’s finished before me, as I like to wave mine when the opposite is the case… which I admit is rare.  But while we’re in the business of waving cocks, let me say that this is my THIRD triumph, having collected prizes from The Observer and The Times.  So Ralph, if you’re reading, put your cock away and put that in your pipe and smoke it!

It doesn’t take much to please me really, and while my life’s been an utter shambles there are certain things now that are putting it right, this being one of them.  So while I’m smiling and as it’s Friday I thought we could have a little fun – hence if there are any crossword buffs among my loyal readers, here’s the clue:

It’s too much for the Queen to get going in vehicle (11)

I’m afraid there will be no prize for the first correct entry, just kudos and (if you’re a bloke) a chance to wave your cock.

Revenge Story – Ilkley Moor, 2017

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Cow and Calf, Ilkley Moor

The morning after the night before I felt a bit angry.  Not least because I’d had a haircut for the Storytelling Event at ITV London and for my journey back home, and it refused to go the way the barber got it to go.  Why does that happen?  Why will it only go the way the wind wants it to?  I should wear my hat and have done.

Talking of being windswept, I found myself on Ilkley Moor.  I’d been to this beautiful place lots of times; we even had Christmas dinner in the Cow and Calf pub one year and very nice it was too.  But this time I was alone and planning a long walk and a quiet stealth-camp overnight.  I bought a postcard for the mosaic which bore the lyric of the famous folk song, which I’ve always liked and often sung.  So I took my guitar and busked it to myself, and in doing so I really studied the lyric for the first time:

Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee, ah saw thee?
On Ilkla Mooar baht ‘at
Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee, ah saw thee?
Wheear ‘ast tha bin sin’ ah saw thee?
On Ilkla Mooar baht ‘at
On Ilkla Mooar baht ‘at
On Ilkla Mooar baht ‘at
Tha’s been a cooartin’ Mary Jane
Tha’s bahn’ to catch thy deeath o’ cowd
Then us’ll ha’ to bury thee
Then t’worms’ll come an’ eyt thee oop
Then t’ducks’ll come an’ eyt up t’worms
Then us’ll go an’ eyt up t’ducks
Then us’ll all ha’ etten thee
That’s wheear we get us ooan back

They don’t mince their words these Yorkshire folk, these chapel-goers who invented the song, wanting their revenge on one who went shagging Mary Jane up Ilkley Moor and forgot to wear his hat.  He caught his death of cold despite their warnings and to get their revenge for his ignorance they ate the ducks that ate the worms that ate him!  To me, shagging Mary Jane without a hat on doesn’t seem an offence meriting such harsh revenge.  In fact, shagging Mary Jane seems an admirable pursuit, and to die in doing so seems a heavenly way to die.  And I wonder why the chapel-goers are not so hard on Mary Jane, whose fate seems less certain?  What happened to her, and how come she didn’t die of cold since she wasn’t wearing her hat, or indeed her knickers?  I made a mental note to research the second verse to allay my concerns.

Anyway the reason I’m recording this is because I had an almighty laugh, all alone in my van, thinking of all the people who could eat the duck that ate the worms that ate ME, if I were the one shagging Mary Jane and dying of hypothermia because I didn’t wear my hat.  I even made a list in my notebook of all those who over the years have hurt me and might have me on their plate.

Some of whom I hope would enjoy dining out on me and burping in polite appreciation while raising a glass of Sauvignon blanc in my honour.  Some individuals I hope would get a mild indigestion.  Others I’d hope would get chronic diarrhoea and shit through the eye of a needle for several days, and end up with ring-sting.  But there are certain ones I’d rather like to die a painful death of food-poisoning, then my ghost could attend their funeral and dance on their grave.  And that would be MY revenge.

Again it sounds harsh but I make no apology, as indeed the chapel-goers were hardly contrite.  And I hope they felt as good as I did on dishing out fantastic cumupance.