Tales of the Riverbank

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While the Ottermobile’s been static I’ve been doing a lot of walking, which is supposed to clear the mind.

I’ve rambled along miles of the Shropshire Union Canal and many more of the River Weaver, and still haven’t seen an otter.  I’ve also failed to meet my old friend Alfie, who I hear has been worried about me and hasn’t been able to get hold of me.  He and I used to trek for miles, or fish, on canals and rivers back in the good old days and I know he still likes to take a constitutional for leisure.

My walks are for leisure too, but they’re also to fill the time for I am now the archetypal tramp.  If I’m not seen tramping along the waterways or huddled in a corner of the library for a warm and a nap, I’m to be seen on a bench in the town square, watching the world go by or writing or pretending to do a crossword I’ve already done.

It’s hard not to feel self-conscious at times because though I don’t (I think) look like a vagrant, if I meet someone’s eye it feels like they’re judging me; they see a man on his own whiling away his day, a man with nothing to do, an “idle spectator” of the world.

But that’s not true.  My mind isn’t empty at all, it’s always abuzz with ideas, many of them good ones.  It’s brimming with story and character, it’s still searching for new words and raring to put them down lest someone should be impressed enough to dare to give the author a job.

Talking of new words, one of the friends I made on the road, Trevor, offered me this:

Gongoozle – (v) to idly spectate, especially canal boats and canal activities.

I suppose that given the amount of time I’ve spent on the canals of late, and the miles I’ve covered and the many boats I’ve seen, I am your tramp and gongoozler.  Yet as I say, I don’t idly spectate, I talk as well, I introduce myself to those I encounter, in the search for new friends and more importantly a story.

The other day I came across Harry, a 70-year-old who calls himself a boater.  Hailing from Manchester, he retired from the police force fifteen years ago following the death of his wife.  He sold his house, bought a barge and has lived on the cut ever since, meandering from Audlem to Wrenbury and beyond and back, loving the wildlife and the back of beyond.  He has the biggest garden in England, because his garden is England.  He likes to visit real ale pubs and favours The Wickstead for its goat curry.  He knows everything there is to know about CAMRA pubs and everything there is to know about the ales they have on tap.  Most important of all, his time will run out before his money.

He asked me what I do and I said I’m very similar – I enjoy the freedom of tramping, I deeply love the back of beyond and I have taken very much to gongoozling.  I have often wondered how different life would’ve been had I chosen a clapped-out boat rather than a clapped-out van.  Knowing my luck it would’ve probably sunk.  But unlike him, my money ran out before my life.

“Do you like a pint?” Harry asked.

“Oh yes,” I said.

“You look like you do,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Next time I’m in this neck of the woods I’ll buy you one,” he promised.

“Thanks,” I said again, swapping numbers.  Harry the boater in his green beret keeping the warmth in his head because he’s as bald as the coots that bob in his wake.

And as he chugged away it felt good to make a new friend.  It also felt good to know that Harry isn’t lonely.  I asked what he’ll do for Christmas and he said he’ll be happy to celebrate it by himself – he’ll go to church, he’ll have all the trimmings and he’ll get quietly pissed.

“And will you stay warm?” I asked.

“Oh aye,” he said with a mischievous grin, ” I’ll have me log-burner going and me chestnuts well and truly roasted.”

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In the Event of My Death

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Earlier this year I became homeless and contemplated suicide.

But then things changed.  I took to the road in my Ottermobile, met some amazing people, got told great stories, had many adventures, diced with involuntary death, wrote lots of things, learned who my all-weather friends are, met my grandchildren for the first time, made some self-discoveries, and fell in love.

Yesterday, in the spirit of remembrance I walked eleven miles to my parents’ graves, reading epitaphs and cenotaphs bearing the family name.  All this led to the most profound epiphanic discovery of all – that these people gave their lives to me and I have a lot to live for, so to throw myself off Beachy Head would be to throw it back in their faces.

While losing a job and a home broke me in two, I had many friends and family who were there to glue me back together, and though for months on end it was just me in the van in the middle of nowhere, I was never alone.  So I have a duty to all those wonderful people to see this thing through, and a duty to myself to prove to the fair-weather friends and contortionists that I won’t be giving up.

I won’t for a second pretend it’s easy.  Being a gypsy is tough, just about managing is just about getting through each fucking day.  It’s a battle, not a world war I grant you, nevertheless a battle.

Back in March when I lost my posh apartment in Salford Quays I relied on friends and family to store the few sticks I clung on to, which means everything I own, if it isn’t on the van, is strewn around the country like so:

  • Boxes of books and scripts and things in Jayne’s attic in Yorkshire
  • Dining table and chairs and my beloved plants at Kimbles’ in Salford Quays
  • Wardrobe and African carvings at Dominic’s in Sheffield
  • My best suits in case I get a job in Mandy’s spare room in Nantwich
  • CD’s at Charlie’s in Derby
  • Antique rocking horse (I kid you not) at Emily’s in Preston
  • Not quite sure but I think there’s a box of something in Bubble’s house in Crewe
  • A van that sits gathering moss at Gary and Janet’s in Willaston
  • And finally, somewhere or other, my will

As I’ve said before in these ramblings, all this existential nonsense serves either to make me weep with sorrow or piss my pants with laughter.

Talking of which, last night I chatted unmorbidly with Mandy about the school reunion, and in posing the question “why?” we agreed it’s more than just for fun, it’s really about mortality – we’re doing this because we’re still alive (despite the odds in my case) and thinking really about how much time is there left?  And in these uncertain times when poundland terrorists want to mow us down at Christmas markets because they haven’t even got the guts to wage a proper war (if such a thing exists) it’s good to do nice things and show them we won’t be beat.  We stand together against the enemy, at Christmas markets or anywhere.  And most important of all, making sure we make the most of what we’ve got left.  And even more important than the most important of all, making sure we have a laugh.

So as we were laughing, she asked if I’d made a will, to which I replied yes but my life and death is in boxes all over the country, so I wonder where it is?

“Well,” she laughed, “sounds like it’s either in Jayne’s attic, Dominic’s cellar, Kimbles’ airing cupboard or Bubble’s back bedroom.”

I was naturally tickled by this alliterative summary, then got to seriously thinking it’s such an important document and I must dig it out.  Things have changed.  I’m not ready.  I’ve survived all these months on the road, I’ve laughed in the black dog’s face and I’ve managed to eat on the breadline.  I’ve realised the less I have the more I want to give and the more I want to show the world I’ve more to give.  I will battle on till time, the greatest enemy of them all, takes me.

So as for my will, fuck knows, but whoever’s got it, I just hope I manage to find it before you do!

“Rags to Riches”

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Some money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will,” said Gabriel.

“Have you got a money box?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

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

“Yes,” she said, “with a knife.”

“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.

The Penalty of Homelessness, Unemployment & Depression

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Yes I hold my hands up it’s a very downbeat title for a post, but I’m afraid it perfectly summarises my mood.  So to begin on a lighter note, I had several kind and positive missives following yesterday’s entry, most of which encouraged me to go against judgement and get myself a canine companion.

But what I didn’t mention in my peroration of the subject was that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to look after myself let alone feed, walk, train and love a dog.

A case in point happened recently when I travelled to Salford Quays to try and drum up some work and stealth-camp in wealthy environs.  My old friend Kim had been saving post that’s still being delivered to my apartment, which I was forced to give up in March.  Among the shit-brown envelopes were two from the NHS, charging me a penalty totalling circa £130 for signing a prescription exemption without due authorisation.

Now let me make it clear that I am guilty as charged because though I was homeless at the time, I was not officially unemployed as I was not then claiming benefit, but only because I’d naively assumed that I wouldn’t be eligible without a fixed abode.  In mitigation, however, and I hope, I was penniless and depressed and badly needed medication.  So what was I to do?  Well to be frank it was get the meds or cower to the black dog.  So I went for the former.

These were dark and ‘orange’ days I’m referring to (and for which I send a bouquet of barbed wire to the dog and some humans by way of thanks) whereas latterly I’d been in a much better place, mentally if not financially.  But then to get this penalty notice it popped the bubble in my spirit-level.

Anyway what can you do?  Well you can write to the creditors and argue your case for the defence.  A good idea except there isn’t an address on the letter, only a number to call or an online form to complete.  With no credit on my mobile, I opted for the online service on which I wrote a lengthy plea…

While pleading guilty to the crime, I testified that I wasn’t at the time and am no longer at the address in Salford Quays, in fact I don’t have an address at all as I am living in my Ottermobile.  Furthermore, at the time of the criminal activity I was desperately depressed and unable to pay the price of a prescription.  It’s unhelpful, I suggested, to receive letters like the above and I would’ve hoped that the medication cited on the prescription might give a signal that all was not well with the defendant.  Admittedly my case is probably buried deep within a computerised system and it would be naive to assume each case is investigated to its fullest, but as I pointed out in my defence, it might not be the best way forward to pursue damages incurred as it’s unlikely I’d be in a position to cough up.

Even further to that, in asking them not to write to the given address in future, I wondered where and how they could find me to take the matter further eg. litigation?  I hereby confess to chuckling ironically at the notion of their manhunt and what might happen if my case for the defence meets with negativity.  Will they send me to prison?  Well, at least I’d have a home, a roof over my head, and they’d know precisely where to send their letters.  Or will they send in the bailiffs?

Well, that makes me chuckle too, because there more than likely isn’t 130 quid’s worth of chattels onboard the Ottermobile to cover my debt to society.  I guess they could take my broken TV, my walking boots and my kitchenware.  If they did, I truly and absolutely wouldn’t have a pot to piss in.

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.

Blogging and Television – a True Story

In my recent travels I met with a TV Producer in Bradford.  He’d been following my blog and liking it, and contacted me to discuss ways of dramatising it for TV.  We’d arranged to meet in the Brewhaus Bar near the Alhambra Theatre, where he bought me a pint and suggested a curry afterwards in Neal Street, which was just up my street.

We got chatting about all things drama and I embellished some tales of my nomadic experiences.  He’d read them all and whereas the blog is I think a mere stream of consciousness, he kindly said they were “more-ish.”  Along my desultory route I had naturally pondered televisual adaptations of my prose and I was happy to hear he was thinking similarly.  We were on the same hymn sheet, as they say in church and indeed everywhere else.

From the Brewhaus (which I liked very much) we strolled to the Karachi Curry House, which was apparently the first ever such eatery in Bradford, catering for millworkers.  Of course there are thousands now, but it was good to see this one had retained its identity and reputation for no-nonsense, unlicensed nosh; cheap, very tasty and served on formica tables minus cutlery (there were plates though).  Such is the charm and excellence of the place, there was a couple in their 60s who regularly travel from as far as the Black Country to have a sit-down meal here.

Anyway we had a good old catch-up the Producer and I, and something happened which was rather astonishing – he paid the bill.  Having lived in Yorkshire for five years or so when working on Emmerdale, I know this is worthy of note – to get as much as a pint of beer off a Yorkshireman is as rare a sight as a pile of teddy-bear shit.

But the point of this entry isn’t to make cheap jokes about the Yorkshireman’s parsimony (he’s actually a very kind bloke and a good sort), it’s to recount some of our dissertations on story, narrative arcs and the need for truth in drama.

When he asked what kind of story I like best in my travelogue, I said that very often it’s the simple tales of everyday folk.  Looking back over some of the entries, I picked out favourites including the one about Phil from Newcastle, who was chained bollock-naked to a lamp-post on his stag night, and all he could worry about was what his lass would say.  And the tale of Steve, whose wife Tracy called him a useless twat because he forgot the Amber Solaire on their cathartic trip to Saltburn.  These were simple things happening to feckless men who happened to be shit-scared of their wife, or in Phil’s case wife-to-be.

But why also are they my favourites, the salient memories of my 140-day journey so far?  It’s because I think they’re resonant of the show I grew up with called Coronation Street.  Imagine Stan Ogden, a useless fat layabout nagged to death by Hilda, and Jack Duckworth quaking in his boots at the very thought of Vera’s bubble-perm and metaphorical rolling-pin.  These characters (and as I touched on in my eulogy to Liz Dawn the other week, they don’t make them like that any more) were so beautifully-observed out of real life and their stories were not in the main reliant on car-crashes, heists and kidnappings, they were tender, simple, familiar and heartwarming tales of struggling working-class couples trying to get through each day unscathed then go to bed and dream of waking up to something better – ie. a few more quid in the bank.

So when I think of story, this is how I think – a car crash doesn’t make a story, a kidnapping isn’t story either, these are happenings, events.  And when I think of truth, this is how I think – truth is what I know, what I relate to.  I can relate to the Oggies and the Duckworths, I’ve met them everywhere and I’ve met the modern equivalent in Phil from Newcastle and Steve and Tracy from Birmingham.

But in all my 53 years and all my travels both recent and in the distant past, I have never once met someone’s who’s been bundled into the boot of a car and driven into the woods to have his head chopped off, or locked in a cupboard and left to starve.  I’m not for a minute suggesting these things don’t happen (and pity the poor bastards they happen to) I’m just saying it’s not my world and it’s not for me what inherently makes drama or story.

I’m realistic enough to know that these days the audience wants bells and whistles and front covers that tell them everything’s going to be sensational.  But I can’t help wishing sometimes the front covers would say we’re going to be treated to a tender, moving, humorous love story between a feckless oaf and a battleaxe.  Or maybe I’m just too old-fashioned or just too old for this, or just my life isn’t remotely sensational!

Then again, when I consider that soaps and serial dramas pull in millions whereas my blog is read by one man and his dog, I might be talking out of my arse.  So if this blog ever does get televised I might find myself rewriting Steve as a serial killer who gets sick of Tracy’s nagging and takes to wacking her over the head with a monkey wrench, and Phil chained bollock-naked to the lamp-post and getting eaten alive by foxes.

But to be honest I’d struggle with that, because it didn’t happen, so it wouldn’t be the truth.