Bet Lynch Lives in Bridlington

mark sunset

In a Bridlington pub I settled with my Guardian and Gillette Soccer Saturday, knowing I had to make two pints last six hours.  Which is no mean feat.  Nursing a drink till the froth is dried on the inside of the glass is the pub equivalent of stealth-camping – you’re sitting quiet, hoping not to get noticed, while of course gazing upon the world as it goes by.  All fine, except that someone did notice – the barmaid, who bore an exciting resemblance to Bet Lynch.

Her name was in fact Lucy.  Somewhere between 50 and 60 and trying to knock ten years off, Lucy was blonde, busty, voluptuous, provocatively-cleavaged in red (not leopard-print) and done up to the nines.  Her towering locks were tied up and her ears were pierced with dangly numbers as big as windchimes.  In younger days she would’ve been beautiful and though three marriages, six kids, thirteen grandkids and a current torrid, door-slamming relationship with potential hubby number 4 have taken their toll, she still looks good.  And I imagine a throng of men loitering at the bar either staring at their pint or more likely her impressive chest.  I could be one of them, because I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if I fancied the woman.

I got her story when I went up for my second ale and she commented, not inaccurately or judgmentally, that I was a slow supper.  I laughed and corrected that if I had the money I’d be supping quicker and coming back more often.  I wasn’t looking for sympathy, just stating fact.  But anyway she seemingly felt sorry for me and put this one on the house.  If money didn’t change hands then life-stories did.  The bar was quiet at this point, early doors, so there was the freedom and privacy conducive to intimacy.  She’d noticed I’d been scribbling in my notebook so asked if I were a writer and as I described my project she seemed impressed, so I nervously dropped in that I’m searching human stories and characters and she reminded me of Bet Lynch.  She laughed and said she’d had that dozens of times, though in her game you don’t get much time for telly and anyway she’d prefer Eastenders.  Fair enough, I said, each to their own.

Lucy didn’t hail from East Yorkshire, she was a Leodensian, a “Wessie” as they call them here (ie someone from West Yorkshire).  She hadn’t travelled much, too many kids and and too little money, though some years ago she flirted with the idea of emigrating to Australia with her first husband… but that didn’t happen because he turned out to be a “cock”.  As did husbands number 2 and 3, she added.

I could’ve chatted to Lucy for hours but there was football to watch and a crossword to do and the bar was getting busy.  And as I sipped my ale and watched my team go down to Everton, I pondered how ephemeral and loveless is this life; you flit from place to place where love is swift arrows.  Fleeting meetings and greetings, if you like shit poetry.

By 7pm I’m walking down the prom with my guitar and a bag of chips, thinking that like other places I’ve laid my hat, there’s so much beauty while the town itself is something they forgot to bomb.  And I think about Lucy and her cleavage, her windchimes and her door-slamming husband-to-be.  I wanted to get to know her more but clearly that was impossible – inviting Tony into my campervan the other day was one thing, but saying to a woman “Would you like to come back to my van?” is a far from impressive chat-up line.   And of course she was taken.  And of course I shouldn’t assume she fancied me.  So as I stealth-camp near Bempton Cliffs I say to myself, “You’re on your own again, cock.”

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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

Best of Both Worlds – The Dubious Art of Finding a Story

ITV STORYTELLING EVENT MAXUS

It’s not so straightforward to approach people these days.  I’m not saying folk are unfriendly, by and large the world turns around because most of us are law-abiding, decent and civil.  But with the increase of crime comes the rise of suspicion, so when you make a beeline for a complete stranger in a pub, deep down you might expect the cold shoulder, a mouthful of abuse or even a smack in the mouth.  So you’d think I’d be cautious, but to be honest I’m not.  Not entirely.

All those years ago when I was interviewed by Health Unlimited for the job in Rwanda I was asked how I’d cope in a dangerous place and/or situation, and I used the analogy that as a writer I see two pubs in the town square – one looks quiet, the other sounds rowdy.  I choose the rowdy one because that could be more interesting; I might get a story and a character with my pint.  And that was the case in Leeds recently.  The story I found isn’t the greatest ever told but I’ll use it to illustrate my point.

But first, you don’t find stories sitting on your arse, and I’m not a great fan of researching on the internet, which to me is the last resort.  You have to market yourself and I find the pub has the best footfall in terms of setting out my stall.  And there I will feed carrots to the horses and get the stories from their mouths.

So I’m in a rough pub in Leeds, where I order a pint and casually take in the customers.  There’s a ladies’ darts match on and I note the tattoos, the hairdos or attempts thereof, the cleavage, the banter and frankly the admirable ability to find the treble twenty.  It’s a weekly event they practise for, dress up for, then look forward to post-match drinks, fags and trays of meat paste sandwiches and limp lettuce.  But that’s not all.  In a corner there’s a couple of fellas playing ukelele and banjo, singing folk songs.  In another there’s an elderly couple mouthing the words, probably inaccurately, between sips.  At the bar there’s a passionate debate happening for three tough-looking guys, the crux of which sounds like would Leeds go up this season and would re-ownership of Elland Road bode well?  I feel like adding my views but resist temptation because I’ve seen someone to pick on – the biggest and roughest-looking man of the considerable bunch of clientele.

He’s on his own right now but I sense he’s waiting for someone or something to happen.  He’s a big guy looking 50 but probably younger, covered in body art.  One of the tattoos, a serpent, coils around his neck and into his bald head, finishing at the fontanelle.  In his nose he wears a ring and in his ears are those big holey things I don’t know the name of but remind me of the Maasai I’ve seen in Kenya and Tanzania. His considerable torso is covered with a denim jacket with the sleeves ripped off, showing his impressively-painted guns.  I ask if this seat is spare and he just nods.

After a few slurps of my Timothy Taylor I finally manage to get a word.  Riskily I tell him I’m not a local and he tells me he knows, he has me down as a traveller.  He’s clocked my bag, he’s clocked me scraping together shrapnel at the bar and he’s figured I’m on my uppers.  I confirm this, and tell him I’m living in a van.  He seems to relax now, and even commends my story, saying he’s done most of the UK and Europe on his motorbike, a Harley.  I know nothing about bikes but explain my brother had one, and he’s impressed until I add that it was a Suzuki 250.  Sensing there’s not much mileage in my brother’s bike I push it maybe and ask if he’s a Hell’s Angel.  He shakes his head, insisting he just likes bikes and he also likes free-living and having sex, and with a tap of his nose he adds that he doesn’t work.  His name is Craig but people call him Bex.  I want to push further and ask why Bex, and how he makes his living, but he begins his story so I hang fire…

He’s waiting for his wife.  Well, she isn’t his wife, not any more, she’s his first wife and now his mistress, his current wife is playing darts.  She knows he’s having an affair with his ex, and his ex knows he’s got a wife at home, and knows that she knows.  It’s all hunky dory for Bex, he’s got the best of both worlds.  At this point he asks if I want another and I decline, saying I’m driving, but he insists that if I refuse he will finish up falling out with me.  It’s the first hint of aggression and I realise this could go either way.  When he returns with three pints (one for his mistress who he says has just texted to say she’s on her way) he tells me more about both his worlds: the bikes, the bike crashes, the metal pin in his left leg thanks to some knob-head in a BMW on Snake Pass, the brawls, the women, the sex.  There’s still an edge to his pitch and I kind of hope his mistress would turn up and change the dynamic.  Then he asks if I’m married, so I tell him separated, and he asks how I go on for sex?

Sometimes in unpredictable situations I find self-deprecation can help – it can throw the the other person, surprise them into submission, make them see you’re no threat, or even make them laugh.  So I go for telling him I don’t get lucky, and even if I did I’m not sure I’d be any good at it anymore – I’d have to pretend that were someone else.  The gag is not mine it belongs to the Bob Monkhouse estate, and Bex laughs so I’m cool with robbing a dead man if it achieves the change of gear I’m after.  But lurking beneath the laughter and testosterone and clouding the beer I sense another story, if I dare ask.  Because there’s a sadness in his worlds and a depression in his eyes that I can see; it takes one to know one…

… Bex was born Craig B (name withheld) in Scarborough, where his father was a fisherman his mother a seamstress.  It wasn’t a happy marriage.  His father was a chronic drunk; when he wasn’t at sea he was in the pub and when he wasn’t slurping pints he was beating his wife.  One night the beatings got out of hand and his mother lashed out in self-defence, but this only provoked his fury and he clouted her over the head with the coal shovel, killing her… and into that beautiful world was born Craig.  As his father did time and subsequently died inside, Craig was brought up by his Aunty and abused for years by his Uncle.  Then at the age of fifteen he ran away and never went back.  To this day he won’t go near Scarborough.  He’ll travel the world, but not there – too many haunting memories…

I’ve summarised the story but you get the picture – this gargantuan man, looking for all the world the toughest you’d encounter, reduced to near-tears as he unburdens to me, a complete stranger he’s only met one pint ago.  And I don’t really know how I’ve done it, how I’ve managed to get him to offload.  Or maybe it isn’t me at all, maybe I’ve just picked on someone who really needs to tell?   Anyway, not abruptly, after a bit more chat (you can’t just jump up and leave when someone’s borne his soul) I say it’s nice to talk to him but I really must get off and find somewhere to stealth-camp.  And thankfully he’s fine with that, so I wonder if he’s had his fill of emptying his closet of skeletons.

As I empty my bladder before heading out, I ponder his story and its ratio of fact to fiction.  Did his father really kill his mother while she was carrying him?  Did he ever meet his father, look into the eyes of his mother’s slaughterer?  Was it really a coal shovel?  Does he really own a Harley?  Is his left leg really made of metal thanks to the knob-head in a BMW?  Is his wife really throwing arrows in the bar?  Does the first-wife-cum-mistress exist and is she really on her way?

Then as I head for the exit I look back to our corner.  And there is Bex grinning over at me and waving, and at his side is a very attractive blonde, sipping her pint, smiling and also giving a wave.  Whether she’s his wife or ex-wife-cum-mistress I’ll never know.  But I leave it to my imagination as I head for my van, passing a beautiful gleaming Harley Davidson on the way.

Don’t Rain on My Parade

At school we used to have “Rainy Day Play” which meant it was pissing down and playtime was spent indoors breathing in other pupils’ farts instead of fresh air.  In truth it didn’t have to be pissing down; the first spot on the window pane had teachers gleefully banning the opening of doors.  It feels like that where I am today as I’m forced to stay inside the Ottermobile.  I’d planned a 10-mile hike but the professor in me saw the rain and vetoed the idea.  So I’m doing a lot of thinking, especially about the reactions to yesterday’s diary entry, which applaud my attempt to add to the growing Social Media noises about depression.  In entries to follow I promise more adventures and to be frivolous again, but as a last word for now on the subject, and to hopefully raise even more awareness, I ask a simple question: Are people with depression unemployable?

Back in 2011 The Guardian ran a piece about whether or not to disclose to your employer that you have a mental illness, a horrible dilemma I outlined in yesterday’s post.  The article cited a couple of examples where the person chose to “out” themselves and found it to be beneficial, but argued in balance that that isn’t universally the case.  So that was six years ago and you’d hope things might’ve improved immensely since then.  But given that 1 in 4 British people per year suffer in some way from depression, stress or anxiety, it worries me that though the issue is now more recognised and taken more seriously, there remains some doubt about whether employers really do “get it.”

This is of course regarding people who are in work, but what about those who find themselves unemployed?  On the positive side, more than 450 employers so far have signed the Time to Change Pledge, but there is a lot more to be done.  The Mind website makes interesting reading with regards to their campaign to lobby the Government with ideas for a more radical and workable back-to-work scheme.  The case studies on the site particularly intrigue me; there are many people in the position I describe – they want to work but find themselves tied up in red tape and Jobcentre bureaucracy, in some cases professional people with excellent skills, qualifications and career histories being advised to attend a course on how to write a CV!  It isn’t the Jobcentre’s fault, they’re merely following guidelines, but it’s time to realise the guidelines are archaic and only serve to make an applicant more demoralised than they were in the first place.  The guidelines can only change when attitudes change.

I think that whether you’re in work or not, one of the difficulties of mental illness in the context I’m discussing, is that it is ‘invisible’.  Whereas a person with flu (for example only) might display symptoms, a person with depression can on the outside look the picture of health.  A person with depression can laugh and joke, so on the surface he or she seems absolutely fine, and it’s therefore no wonder to be fair that people might not notice or understand it.  But on the inside the person is suffering, often privately and spiralling in the way I posited yesterday.

When I was in Bradford recently I visited someone I know well who is undergoing chemotherapy.  We talked about music and lots of things and had some laughs, but we also talked about work, and his employers being supportive.  Which is just as well, he said, because if he lost his job who would employ a man in his mid-fifties with cancer?  I knew what he meant but it shocked me; it was almost like someone saying Who would employ me because I’m non-white, gay, disabled?

In one of my previous jobs in TV I was responsible for finding new talent and addressing the issue of diversity.  It’s a difficult job but I’m pleased to say I had some success.  But we can always and should always do more to open doors for the broadest cross-section of society.  We can do more for ethnicity, we can do more for those with disabilities, and given that statistically 25% of society has mental illness, we can do more for that section too.

I’ve made thousands of bad calls in my life but one of the worst was not putting by for a rainy day.  If I’d known (or in truth been less naive) about how my illness would affect my career, I might not have made that mistake.  But you live and learn eventually.  And though it’s a “rainy day” today I’m going for that walk after all.  I’ve got my van and I’ve got places to see, adventures to find, fun to have and frivolousness to deliver.  Life’s candy and the sun’s a ball of butter.

 

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.