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

White Cliffs of Dover

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.

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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.

A to Z of Being Down and Out

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Tony Wilkinson – Down And Out, BBC books

I read the news this morning and felt ashamed.  There was I feeling down about unemployment when there were people in Vegas going to enjoy a bit of music and paying the price of their life for it.

I’d planned to write about the anger I feel at being professionally sidelined and abjectly poor, but on discussing the news, Mandy suggested another A to Z (which she enjoys) in which I could offer some less angry, wry and hopefully humorous observations on the plight of the unemployed homeless nomad.  Faithful readers (thank you Trev in Worksop) may remember I promised to kick the A to Z thing into touch, but I bow to popular demand and give you my third alphabetical lexicon of this diary to date:

THE A to Z OF THE DOWN-AND-OUT

– Apology from the system that failed me and their admin error which meant I’ve gone hungry.  Mercifully this was rectified when I signed on this afternoon and I might get my peanuts come tomorrow.

B – Broke.  I fucking hate being broke.  Also Bastards…

– Creditors.  When a man is on his arse, these bastards queue up to rub salt in his haemorrhoids.

D – Dog,  The fucking black thing that renders one unemployable.

E – Endless misery and inability to stand your corner at the bar.

– Friends and family.  Thank God for them.  I’d love to name-check them all but they’re too numerous and too kind – they give me love, food, wine and the will to live.

G – Gratitude.  What you feel for the above.

– Hope.  There has to be this or otherwise go Hungry or Hang yourself.

– Ignominy.

J – Jobseekers’ Allowance.  They should call it Jobseekers’ Weekly Humiliation.  You have to apply for several jobs per week.  I’ve done so and heard Jack-shit…

K – Keep trying, even though you’ve got in touch with contacts in your field (some of whom go back years) and they’ve completely fucking ignored your calls and emails.

L – Lucky bastards and professional fair-weather friends and contortionists.

M – Motherfucking misery.

N – No.  My least-favourite word.

O – Oh no.  My least-favourite phrase.

P – Poverty.

Q – Queuing with cap in hand.

R – Rejection.  A writer or jobseeker’s nightmare.

S – Shit.  It’s what you feel or are made to feel.

– Terrible.  Ditto.

U – Undervalued.  Ditto.

– Vagabond is what you feel you are, because if you’re not careful you begin to smell of baby wipes and shit.

W – Waste.  That’s waste of a talent when others less so are earning thousands and to be frank I wish them Wakeful nights.

X – Xanadu.  There has to be one for us somewhere…

Y – “Yes I have a job for you…” which would help.

– Zero money in the bank but zillions of characters and stories to write about.

So there you are.  Some Anger did come out I’m afraid.  When you’re homeless, jobless and pot-less the “A word” – like the dog – isn’t easy to keep from the door.  Then again, watch the news and you see anger and cruelty at its worst, so perhaps I should just shut my mouth and be grateful for what I have as I travel north again to Manchester and its tantalising wealth.

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.

Friends Reunited

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A very good friend getting things in hand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Soap Opera Producer to the Great Unwashed

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I signed on today.  I was dreading it.  As I’ve said before, the dish of dizzy heights and the shitty lows have been staple fare of my life.

Two weeks ago I boarded a train and travelled first class from Leeds to Kings Cross, eating food allegedly cooked by James Martin though he didn’t seem to be around to serve it.  Then I was picked up in a posh limo and ferried to ITV on the Southbank, then up on a stage being the story expert sharing his expertise on storytelling.  It was very successful and I felt good and there were many plaudits.  Then I was limo’d back to Kings Cross and travelled first class back to Leeds where another posh car waited to run me back to the Ottermobile in Frizinghall… and I bedded down in my house on four wheels.

Today I walked a ten-mile round-trip to claim what’s due from the State.  And that’s my story.  It’s no more tragic than anyone else’s, and it’s certainly far less tragic than that of a good many less fortunate souls in the world.  So I won’t feel sorry for myself, I should remember I have much to be thankful for, many to be grateful to and everything to look forward to.  That’s the way it is and that’s how I will view it while laughing in the face of adversity and keeping the dog in the kennel where it belongs.

The many to be grateful to include my beautiful daughter Gabriel, whom we met for coffee the other day.  She’d been swimming with my granddaughter and there she was, a little bundle of joy but shy and tired.  My heart soared at the next storey of the rebuilding relationship.  Then last night I had drinks with my two eldest brothers Podge and Gary, my son Charlie and Mandy.  We did the pub quiz and came joint-second… erm, joint second-last.  But we didn’t care because we were laughing all the time.  I filled them in on some of my travelling anecdotes and updated them on the decrepit state of the Ottermobile, and on how Mandy and I are organising a school reunion.  They filled me in on what’s happening in their lives – how Podge is coping as a widower, how Gary is plodding on in his cheerful way, how Chas is settling into his house in Derby and planning a trip to Germany.  It was great to see them all and see that life goes on.  And, of course, that there is always a story…

Signing on I thought would be an unbearable affair, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a neat office and friendly faces.  I was also surprised by a weird thing that happened, which I’ll come to soon…

I’d anticipated looking at vagabonds, drug-addicts, hopeless souls and Polish-speaking strugglers (and I’m not being prejudiced as there is Polish blood in my family) and I was expecting to be thinking “I’m better than you” but knowing I wasn’t, I am not.  But there was a welcome deal of cheer among us claimants.  And as I waited and got chatting to one or two, the weird thing happened…

It wasn’t long before I was called to the desk by a 50-something bespectacled lady with an open smile, and as I sat opposite her to go through the process, talk about my change of c/o address and my “fairly unique” homeless circumstances, I soon realised that the lady was someone I’d slept with some thirty-five years ago!

I knew this would be an elephant in the room as I couldn’t possibly drop it in, as it were, but the subtext in my mind was “I wonder if she recognises me and I wonder if she’d remember?”  Obviously I won’t name names or go into detail about such a distant and probably meaningless event, but my memory was pretty clear.  Mercifully perhaps, hers wasn’t, because she didn’t seem to recognise me, or remember at all.

I record this only because it was such a strange feeling to be laying my soul bare to her, of all people, about being homeless, “unwashed” and unemployed, yet the boxes she was ticking showed “a very impressive CV”.  She even commented that I came over very well, and I’d therefore, she was sure, have no trouble in finding work within my field.  Then as I thanked her genuinely for being so kind and helpful and shook her hand, I couldn’t help thinking “the last time I touched you…”  And as I left the building I felt surprisingly uplifted for reasons I find difficult to explain.  The top and bottom of it though, was that it somehow made the process far more bearable than I’d expected.

And all the way back to the Ottermobile I laughed to myself and thought how strange life can be, how there’s a story round every corner, how even for the great unwashed there’s a rich lather of material to gather in.

Fortune Favours the Bold

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The Otter’s Tipple – Whitby

I’m turning back the clock from my bout of thuggery on Tyneside to my one-day stop in Whitby, where I was pleased to get an eponymous pint of Otter.  My welcome wasn’t entirely warm, however; parking was a pain and I had to risk a ‘coaches only’ section, where an officious car park attendant looked at me like she’d clocked a slug on her kitchen worktop.  After I’d squeezed in elsewhere and paid my dues, one of her colleagues confided that the woman is notorious for her anger and you wouldn’t think she used to work for the Samaritans.

“I can only wonder what was the mortality-rate,” I quipped.

I do like Whitby, it holds happy memories that I wanted to chart in my novel.  Today the sun was shining and I relished a long walk over the sands then a climb up to the Abbey for a personal slice of Stoker, who I look up to as a traveller and author.  Then among the jet shops, Steampunk regalia and fairground buzz I reminisced.

Jayne and I came to Whitby often, once with my son Dom when we sailed on a boat.  One time though we had our fortunes told, for a laugh as much as anything, given my scepticism of clairvoyance.  Reading our palms, the lady said that Jayne drove a blue and silver sports car.  True, though I suspected she’d seen us drive in.  She said I’d never find a truer friend than Jayne.  Probably true.  And she read that my father was ill but was being well cared-for and would be OK.  Mostly true except two months later he was dead.

I shouldn’t mock.  Some people put great store in such things, whereas I believe in chance.  Like it was chance that determined I’d be attacked in my van…

I’ve had a number of welcome responses to Friday’s diary (The Night I Was Attacked) most from people who were obviously concerned.  It was great to know that people cared about me, and even better that my kids and other loved-ones were among the well-wishers.  One very loved-one asked “Why the hell are you putting yourself through this shit?”  It’s a very simple, very fair and very valid question and one I’ve asked myself many times since the start of this project.

I’m a writer.  I can’t do anything else.  Some say I can’t even do that!  But that’s my chosen field, the profession for which I trained for years, my calling from which I can’t run.  And if I’m not employed or indeed employable given my age and mental health (see Don’t Rain on My Parade) I can’t just do nothing but wait for the phone to never ring.  I’ve got to get out in search of story, in search of some things and some people to write about.  I also have to get through each day, ideally without harm or prejudice, and live with the little that chance has given me.

But although the question is valid, it’s valid also to flip it:  Why the hell do I put myself through this shit?  Or, Why the hell have I been put through this shit?  Is it fate?  Is it the cards I was dealt?  Or just chance and that’s just the way the stick of rock crumbles?  Whatever it is and whatever life throws at you, you have to fight back, you must be brave.  My Latin’s a bit rusty shall we say, but I think it’s audentes fortuna iuvat – fortune favours the bold.  Sometimes though, we’re emboldened with the help of others.

Like the otter is making a comeback, in part with the help, support and effort of humankind, I will make mine, either on my own or:

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