Homeless – My Night with a Down-and-out

shambles

York – The Shambles by the Author!

I always knew there’d be a first time for someone to sleep the night with me in my van, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it’d be a bloke.

To give the backstory, just like many other towns and cities, York has a real homeless problem – in recent years it’s seen a rise of 40% of those officially considered to be in that category.  I don’t include myself – my Ottermobile is my home, not in the traditional sense, but it’s a roof over my head with certain amenities so enough for me to call it that.  But yes it’s only one small step away from the streets.

Which is where I met “Tony”.  Normally those you encounter in shop doorways lie in a shambles of bedclothes with a paper cup in front of them, and they’re mutteringly asking if you have any spare change.  But there was something noticeably different about Tony – well-spoken, smart but casual in jeans and anorak, clean-looking, he politely approached me and asked for help.  Though homeless and penniless, there was something in his eyes that made me warm to him.  I knew there was a story but I didn’t want it there and then so I invited him into a nearby cafe and bought him a tea and a bun.  Gratefully he put down his bags and found a table, where I described my project and my own proximity to homelessness.  Hearing this seemed to touch him all the more so I wondered if in return he’d tell me how he came to be here, joking that he didn’t get the comestibles for free.  He laughed and begun his tale, which here I summarise.

Originally from Blackpool, he left school with nothing to write home about and drifted through dead-end jobs and relationships, finishing up in a fairground burger van.  Eventually he managed to save up and get himself to Brussels, where he studied catering with dreams of becoming a restaurateur.  Suddenly he heard from his brother that his parents and Auntie had been killed in a car crash.  Returning home to see to the funeral, he met a guy who’d become his lover.  They settled in Blackpool where he got a job as a waiter while setting up a bistro with his brother, using their small inheritance.

The hikes in rent hit him hard and he eventually lost the business, and when his boyfriend deserted him and he was duped by his brother, he went into financial and mental decline.  Since then he’s drifted around our cities to find work.

It was a story far from unique I supposed, and heartbreaking, but as with Aline (see Land of a Thousand Hills) there was the air of “that’s how it goes” pragmatism – Tony doesn’t feel sorry for himself, though he is at times baffled as to how this happened, how he got here, how rapid was the journey.

But don’t suppose either of us were down in the dumps; Tony was a very funny young man of 30, good-looking, bright, friendly and hopeful; all he wanted, he said, was to get a full-time job, save up and get back to Belgium.

Impressed with his positivity and warmed by his wit, I asked how this is possible when sleeping rough – isn’t it dangerous?  Does he encounter violence etc?  With a shrug Tony said this and other things come with the territory.  He’d been propositioned for sex, which he’d never lower himself to, he’d been attacked over a cup of tea, and he’d been offered drugs though he’s never so much as smoked a spliff.  Sleeping rough is a last resort, he said, he sometimes gets casual work and can afford a hostel, but finding a full-time job is difficult.

I really liked Tony and felt for him, especially when he said he’d slept rough the night before and got drenched; he’d spent his last pennies on getting his clothes laundered.  Though the weather had improved I couldn’t bear the thought of him kipping in a doorway so wondered if he’d prefer a roof over his head, just one night…

So I found myself in a lay-by near Murton, setting up stealth-camp.  Knowing he was hungry, as was I, I vowed to rustle something up, explaining I love cooking for people and don’t get the chance nowadays.  He was the chef and I was the novice but with meagre provisions I managed to make a meal which he seemed to enjoy.  Beggars can’t be choosers, he said!  There was no wine to go with the dish, but we didn’t need it because we were laughing like drains at how bizarre all this was; total strangers, sharing food, sharing jokes, playing Ludo (!) and bonding in ludicrous adversity.

Though the Ottermobile claims to be a two-berth it’s a tight squeeze, but I managed the awkward and funny manoeuvre of the seats to bed down – not before I’d declared some ground-rules:

No farting

No breakfast

In the morning he must be gone before I do my ablutions, and

No funny business.

Responding in order, he said he doesn’t fart, he’d get breakfast elsewhere, he’d no desire to see me “ablute” and as for funny business he wouldn’t touch me with a fucking barge-pole.  I said I felt a mixture of amusement, offence and comfort from that peroration.  Tony laughed, telling me I was a lovely bloke, if a bit mad, he’d had a great time and I’m crap at Ludo.

Next morning, after a quiet night’s kip he made a sharp exit as promised, with a quip that I could now shit in peace.  He also took my number and promised to stay in touch.  Whether that will happen I very much doubt, but that doesn’t matter.  He was a fine young man; he was good company, he made me laugh, but most importantly he made me think about what’s important.  “We Stand Together” went the mantra after recent terrorist attacks.  What more can we do but help each other through?  We’re human beings and that’s what we do, or most of us.  I’ve always championed the underdog, it’s in my make-up.  If I can help I will, and I wish I could do more.  I’m no saint, God knows, but I like to think and I like to know that whatever happens to me and if I end up in Tony’s shoes, someone will be there to help me.  I’ll think a lot about Tony and marvel at his cheer in dark days, I’ll hope he’ll get back to Brussels, and I’ll forever be saddened at how it got to this.  We all roll the dice I suppose, but only some of us score a six.

Right now though I’m concerned about getting to the Filey coast and up into Scotland.  Time for me, like for everyone, is running out.

Ludo

Happy Endings – A Story in Three Parts

mark sunset

Image by Jayne Bickerton

Part One:

Depression manifests itself in many different ways, depending I suppose who you are and how you’re made up.  Because I do think it’s genealogical; I never got to meet my granddad, but if my mother’s tales were anything to go by, he was an alcoholic.  And though I think the word was never used in those days, depression was what he suffered and died from.  Depression is not easy to describe, but with your blessing I’ll attempt to do so, at least from my own perspective…

Like a human drama serial, this thing comes in episodes.  They’re not time-specific though, they can last for a day, a week, a month…  And each one finishes but you know there’ll be another instalment – as for when, you’re kept in suspense.  I’ve had many episodes in my life, and while they’re always similar in terms of the physical (because it is a physical illness) the mental side can vary – from hopelessness, apathy, despair to the far end of the spectrum, suicidal tendencies or even an attempt to “end it”.

Let me first take the physical side.  The body aches, it doesn’t want to get out of bed, it doesn’t want to be dressed, it refuses to exercise, it’s seized-up, it’s blown a gasket, it’s just conked out.  This I admit is a simplistic portrait, but to me it is that simple; your body has just packed up.

The mental side is far more complex and I repeat, varied.  This won’t make for merry reading but I offer two examples of either end of the spectrum I outlined above.

Part Two:

The first example is triggered by nothing in particular but it can trigger something life-threatening (see my previous diary entry).  You wake up with a strange feeling that the hours are going to be dark.  It takes a while to get up.  You run a bath.  It goes cold because you go back to bed.  You finally get up and let the water out, and you hate the waste of a commodity we in this country take for granted while others are gasping for it.  You run another bath.  But the tank is cold now.  You sit in the freezing water for ages.  Your mind goes orange, you’re feeling nothing except hopelessness… What are you doing here?  Why were you born?  Why have you made your life a mess?  Where are you going?  Why does nobody love you?  Of course you know that people do love you, but that’s how it feels.  It’s not as simple as just feeling sorry for yourself, which is why it’s irritating when people tell people like you to “cheer up” or “get a grip” or “pull yourself together.”  Because the hopelessness makes that impossible, the hopelessness is overpowering and oppressive to common sense.  Some people say it’s like being strait-jacketed and you know what they mean.  But to you it feels like someone’s poured sand in your ear, making your head too heavy to function, blocking the ability to think straight, to appreciate what’s good about your life and the world itself.  So you have to wait till you sleep on the right side and the sand runs out.  But when the days go by and there’s no sign of the sand on your pillow, only tears, the only way of coping is to drink, find some escape, and drink, and drink… and nearly burn yourself to death.

The second example is work-related.  You have a great job, demanding and tiring but great.  You’re doing well, riding high.  Then one morning it goes orange.  Again no particular trigger, just everything turning orange in your head and your body shutting down.  You try to soldier on but the more you do the less you get done.  It’s the curse of the strong – you’re a strong man but you’re losing control, and that’s the worst thing that can happen to someone like you.  It’s time to get help, you know it, from your loved-ones, from your boss, but to ask is to betray your weakness so instead you bottle it up, the dog is mauling you but you conceal the teeth-marks.  The reluctance to show weakness is compounded by the fear that nobody will understand, your boss won’t get it, and the very real fear of losing your job or being “managed out”.  The fear of your talents slipping away or being ignored.  So you neither turn to others nor help yourself, you do yourself no favours which means you turn to drink.  Before you know it you’re on a spiral that only goes downwards and the self-loathing kicks in, you hate yourself so much that the very idea that anybody can love you seems ludicrous, and life itself seems impossible too, so what choice do you have but to weigh up how to do it… a rope, a hose-pipe or walk into the sea?

Part Three:

But there is always another choice, and there’s always the fact you have a responsibility, to yourself and your loved-ones.  If you didn’t turn to them for help, you only have yourself to blame.  It seems incongruous but you’re in a privileged position to be in the abyss, but looking up at the sun or stars.  The sun warms your face, and the stars say you can fight, you can fight both your circumstances and your dog.  Your reason to live is right there.  Your loved-ones, the things in life that give you pleasure.

Your pleasure happens to be travel, so what better way to leave this thing behind?  It’s not running away, it’s running to something new.  It’s not displaying weakness it’s showing you’re in control again.  And finally, you’re not hopeless, you’re full of promise, full of joy and full of knowledge that the fucking dog is no better than you.  You are the master.  And now the master heads for the sun, on his merry way.

The Story of Booze and Depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Curse of The Strong

At the time of writing they’re still deliberating about what caused the Fire of London.  Can’t blame me for jumping to the conclusion it was a terrorist act, can’t blame me for questioning.

Talking of which, Jayne phoned last night and asked, not unfairly, what is the point of this blog.  The point is I don’t even really know what a blog is!  I’ve never read one and I never thought I’d be writing one!  So if it’s not a blog is it a travelogue?  I suppose not, not in the Bill Bryson sense anyway.  I never set out to record historical facts about the various places I’ll visit, unless they particularly interest me or they’re pertinent in terms of a hook to hang these scribblings on.  I’m a traveller, a gypsy, not a historian.  Anyway in the end it was agreed that it’s really a diary.  That’s fine with me, so I suppose I should really address what’s the point of the diary?

As I’ve said before, I just wanted to put down my feelings, about me, my life and about things as they happen to me and this beautiful but in some ways fucked-up world.  At times it’s self-indulgent I know, but isn’t that a diary?  And this entire trip is self-indulgent.  For once I’m writing with the freedom from bits-of-kids telling me I’m doing wrong.  I’m doing it for nobody else but me; if my writings gather interest and give entertainment that’s great.  If they don’t I really don’g care.  Because I am selfish.

I define depression as inherently selfish – in that it’s an illness that can only be helped by oneself.  It’s haunted me all my life and nobody, friend or loved-one, can with the best will in the world, really help.  Certainly they, like the drugs, can’t cure it.  In his excellent and recommendable book The Curse of the Strong, Tim Cantopher describes depression as a physical illness, like a machine breaking down, blowing a gasket.  It’s a fair analogy except no other person can be the mechanic but oneself.

There’s no blame for the illness, no reason, other than the genes that make us.  Circumstances can obviously change things, get you down or conversely cheer you up, but it’s always there this black dog, it never goes away, and so complete happiness is impossible.  At times in my life I’ve ostensibly had everything, but this dog has barked and driven it all away, meaning that I have driven away people, material wealth, and very good jobs.

Which leads me to another question: do employers ‘get’ depression?  Do they understand?  I would like to say yes.  But I can’t.  So I won’t.  Something should seriously be done about that.  Depression is a terrible illness as potent a killer as cancer, and from experience I can only conclude that employers’ views of the latter are different to the former.  It’s a generalisation perhaps, but as I say, this is my experience, that employers’ ‘treatment’ of depressives is unfair, misguided and far more damaging than those who dismissively and simplistically tell us to pull ourselves together or cheer up.

Things are changing, I read, the more this is talked about and examined openly and frankly.  I hope so, but will not hold my breath.

Anyway, as I say, this illness has to be handled and managed by myself.  So that’s why I’m doing this blog/travelogue/diary/journey/project; it’s a test of endurance, a self-imposed challenge to see if I can do it, if I can do it alone, achieve my goals such as they are, without breaking down or blowing a gasket (that goes for myself and my clapped-out Ottermobile!)

My self-diagnosis is that these ramblings, both written and walked, are helping; I do enjoy cramming down my thoughts for cyber-eternity.  They make me smile and if they can occasionally make you smile too then everyone’s happy.  If not, I’ll please myself.  If my posts aren’t bursting with Brysonesque wit and knowledge, they compensate me.  I’m visiting nice places, meeting a mixed bag of people or indulging my own agenda.  Nice places are to found in every bed of my enormous garden so far – from Yorkshire to Willaston, Nantwich, Bickerton, Peckforton, Burwardsley, Tiverton, Tattenhall, Delamere, Blakemere, Alvanley… and there’ll be many more nice places to come as I tootle slowly and desultorily towards The Lakes.  That said, at the time of writing I’m heading for Liverpool.