Time to Talk

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https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/get-involved/time-talk-day-2018

It’s TIME TO TALK DAY and I’m not sure what to say.  I’m feeling ambivalent.  I’m very happy to support the above initiative because it’s vital that we talk.  However, when I began to scribble notes to form this post I began also to realise depression and anger were the principle emotions emanating from the slanted words on the page.

We depressives can only speak subjectively, the illness is in our minds and I am minded to suggest always that it is by definition selfish.  We therefore have a responsibility to ourselves to find ways through the darkest days (which as I’ve said before are in my case and incongruously the colour orange).  But it’s not necessary, or even possible, to achieve this all by ourselves.  We need help, from ourselves, from our loved-ones, and from our employers…

This is a drum I’ve banged many times before on this and other forums and I don’t pretend to want to stop.  Employers.  Do they understand mental illness?  Do they manage it well or do they choose to manage it out?  Would they react in the same way if I had cancer?  Do they struggle with the issue because it’s invisible (a depressive seeing orange can have cheeks the healthy colour of gala apples)?  Or are they suspicious of the illness in case it’s an invention to mask indolence or lack of ability or talent?

I wonder if this is what can give us a bad name?  Any of us could claim to be feeling seriously ill when really we’re just ‘off-colour’, a bit like limping into the doctor’s surgery and claiming we’ve got sciatica then skipping out clutching a note for a week off work.  So in a way I can understand the suspicion, because we can look fine, we can even have a laugh at the watercooler, and we can seemingly be able to do our jobs perfectly well.  But of course we are not perfectly well, we’re seizing up inside and our engines are just conking out – because it really is a physical illness.

So it’s not enough for employers to give superficial valeting.  It’s all very well giving us time off and the offer of a phased return to work, but there should be more responsible understanding of the illness and more constructive and sustainable support.  Again, we have a responsibility here because we should never feel (or be made to feel) our workplace is a charity and we’re seeking preferential treatment or meekly feeling sorry for ourselves.  We should be unembarrassed, proud even, to say we suffer from mental illness and we’ll need careful management if that’s not too much to ask.

With regard to my industry, which has such a voracious appetite and need for story, it always struck me as ironic that the assiduous mining of fiction meant overlooking the real-life stories of some of those at the coalface, who are in fact being crushed by the wheels of industry and savaged by the dog.

When I lost my job I was wretched, homeless and suicidal – the swanky lifestyle I’d been living was at a stroke demolished along with my soul.  But who cared?  And what can you do?  You can choose to walk into the sea or walk on to the next thing.  In my case the next thing was to buy a house on wheels and travel and write about some of the bad things but more importantly some of the good things in my world.  In other words I was taking responsibility, some would say in an extreme way, but I was genuinely testing myself and dreaming that I could travel new avenues and perhaps draw attention to my plight.  And I always knew there was a safety-net in the form of the many friends and family I’m lucky enough to turn to.

And that’s ultimately what I did, and it’s thanks to them too that I could drive to the beach (as I often did) and keep my feet dry.

So while I had misgivings about Time to Talk Day in terms of how it made me feel, I now feel less ambivalent because I’ve done just that – I’ve talked, and in talking I’ve reminded myself of all the good things in the world and all the good people who’ve helped me through, and all the good things about me that have also helped me through.  I’ve needed help and I’ve needed to help myself.  And yes, I’ve needed to talk.  And it’s helped.

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“Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” – the Story of a School Reunion

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If you’re a depressive, like me, there are loads of things you can do about it.  You can drink the blues away, only for them to come back in spades.  You can mope and feel sorry for yourself, only to make the blues turn ‘orange’.  You can feel that life’s not worth living, only to realise you’re not brave enough to take it away.  Or, you can say it is worth living, let’s look on the bright side of it and let’s be pro-active…

You can join a gym and conjure the magic of endorphins.  You can apply for jobs and tell those in a position to engage that you are there and you’re not going away and you’re interesting and yes, engaging.  You can look at things that are so easily taken for granted – your home if you’re lucky to have one, your talents if you’re blessed, and your nearest and dearest if you pause to consider you’re so much richer for having them.

Or, you can have a school reunion…

Since last September a beautiful woman and I (with the help of a few other special people) have been meeting, discussing, debating, planning and staying awake at night thinking about how nice it would be to meet those we schooled with 38 years ago.  How great it would be to get as many of them as possible in the same room, to see how they’ve done, how they now roll, and indeed how they now look.

So allow me to indulge and embroider the back-story, which for me and this story is vital – it provided some salient and profound “station stops” on my travels both geographical and psychological.  Loyal readers will know that last year was spent for the most part living on the Ottermobile, travelling (or often breaking down in) various parts of the UK.  I enjoyed and endured highs (seeing beautiful scenery and meeting wonderful people to write about) and lows (running out of tobacco and being attacked by a couple of hooded knob-heads).  But during that time a beautiful woman contacted me via Linkedin and we ‘chatted’ a while, not least about our school days together, and one day she suggested it might be a good idea to have a reunion.

So I said yes let’s chat more and gave her my number.  Some weeks later I was heading for North Wales and arranged to call in on her in Cheshire, where I took her out to dinner.  As we drank wine and reminisced, I mentioned the time I asked her out at school and she said “no” and that was the story of my life.  But anyway we of course stayed in touch and the issue of reuniting with our peers, ignited some weeks before, was now beginning to burn.

In the months to follow, with the aforementioned “committee” and social media playing their part, the fire burned ever more brightly and, last Saturday night, 60 or so of us convened for the Nantwich & Acton Grammar School Class of 1980 Reunion.  And what a night!

I realise that many of you readers are not NAGS Alumus but I want to describe some of what happened because for me as a writer it was fascinating, for me as a person it was enormously significant.  Of course there was music and food and lots of booze in a room crammed with people, but the room was also crammed with a great deal of laughter, reminiscence, wit and bantering exchanges of story, and above all love.  The buzz was incredible and the  energy amazing, proving that for those of us in our fifties there is still life, still action, and still the ability to behave like kids.  Inevitably some of us might’ve been nervous at first, or even scared, but these negative emotions soon gave way to joie de vive as we danced the night away and finished up linking arms and belting out Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.  And inevitably, as with every party, there had to be someone whose role in life is to be the class idiot or drunken dad-dancer or dubious town-crier…

For me as a writer I prefer to hide behind a script, but for me as a person I felt bound to say a few words, such was my enthusiasm and drunkenness and propensity to make a bloody fool of myself.  But it was all genuine, all meant, and all-important to say what I truly believed.  Yes I probably spoke too long, more than probably repeated myself, quite possibly tried to be funny and more than definitely slurred my words.  But more than definitely they were genuine.

Talking of which, there has been an entertaining and heartfelt aftermath on social media and to illustrate the point I’d like to borrow the words of one of my school-friends, which I think beautifully sum up how I and many other people now feel…

So here we are. It’s Monday night and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Saturday night. I was scared at first, but then overwhelmed to see everyone, then [I felt] euphoria. Mandy, Mark, Kay and Dave…thank you for a fantastic night, you have no idea how much you have touched me. Ruth, I cannot thank you enough…. you found me when I didn’t know I even existed. So many wonderful people to meet again. I’m so sorry if I didn’t get to speak to you all. I regret not spending more time with those that I did. 48 hours on and I have an overwhelming melancholia because for now I can’t see you all, crazy to learn after 38 years that I miss all of you so much. All that I ask is that we see each other sooner rather than later and that life treats you all well until we next meet. There is a big hole in my life that you all fill and I didn’t realise it until now. I wish you all only the best of life and hope to see you again very soon – D.

I am touched by D’s words, and even more touched to glean that in all the aftermath there are ongoing stories and sub-plots in development, stories and sub-plots that began nearly forty years ago and will unravel for years to come.

As I say, school reunions and the descriptions of such are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I needed to post this because it was such a massive deal to me after such a difficult year and it was great to see that so many people looked so well, behaved so well and have clearly done so well, and that being 54 doesn’t mean there’s nothing left in the tank, nothing left to say and nothing left to do.

So thank you for indulging me because it really did me the world of good.  The year has started well, I’ve been pro-active, I’ve joined the gym, my career does look like it’s being rekindled.  But that isn’t all the story, because I have a confession to make, a sub-plot to bring to the surface…

I had an ulterior motive in giving my number to the beautiful woman, because I wanted to ask her out again.  And this time, after 38 years, the answer was “yes”, and that’s the greatest and happiest reunion of all.  Because this is a story not just about nostalgia, or about celebrating and looking on the bright side of life, it’s actually a tender and profound love-story.

Shelter

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On this particularly cold morning recently I left the Ottermobile and was sitting at the bus stop, where I was joined by a lady wearing a woolly hat and a moustache.  She said I looked “starved to death” and I couldn’t deny it.  She then asked what I was doing and I replied, without irony, that I was waiting for a bus.  I couldn’t deny that either.  Nor could I deny that the pie I was eating contained pork.  The only truth I withheld is that it was stolen.

I was off to sign on.  It’s a fortnightly treat I dread, and even more so nowadays when they’re asking me to broaden my jobsearch and attend courses such as How to Write a CV.  I knew these days would come.  And I knew the days would come when I’d be applying for jobs not in my usual field.  Which is why I haven’t been blogging, because applying for a job is a full-time job.

But on a rare day off from applying for jobs and being turned down and learning how to write a CV, I thought I’d turn to this diary and write a little something there.

I’ve received quite a number of messages asking where I’ve been and if I’m OK.  The vast majority of these are from people who’re genuinely concerned, as opposed to the people wishing to knit at the guillotine.  I’m aware that my recent posts have been less than optimistic, and some caring readers have said I’ve moved them to tears so I should reassure them that despite all the hardship I’m doing alright.  As I said last time, I’m happy and I know it and I really want to show it.

I suppose in a way it’s like a soap opera, where I provide a “hook” that makes my readers desperate to know what happens next.  It’s vitally important that we keep our audience guessing and of course wanting to tune into the next episode, so the “hook” is something that makes soap opera story writers toss and turn at night.  I guess my “hook” is brilliant in that my readers wanted to know whether I survived the recent chill.

Well I did, which to some would be “false jeopardy”.  “False jeopardy”, another soap term, means that we have a character metaphorically dangling from a clifftop (hence the term “cliffhanger” which has now become the “hook”) at the end of an episode, then starting the next episode with his or her immediate rescue.  To “pay this off” so soon would be “false jeopardy” and therefore a let-down to the audience who prefer to see him or her suffer a little longer, or indeed if they don’t care at all, fall to his or her violent death.

The problem with this, I always argued, is that all dramatic jeopardy is false because it’s by definition a drama, a fiction, an episode of make-believe.  In other words, nobody truly believes it’s real, what they care about most is that it’s entertaining and they wouldn’t want story teams to toss and turn at night because they know damned well it’s all false anyway, jeopardy or otherwise.

Real life, of course, isn’t make-believe.  But it does provide all its characters with problems to overcome, wrongs to right and lives to save.  I recently needed saving and, thankfully, my saviour or saviours arrived and gave me shelter.  As I said before, most of my audience will be delighted and relieved to hear this, while others might grumble that it was all “false jeopardy.”  They’d much rather I’d perished because that’s a better story over which to knit a Christmas jumper or a woolly hat.

Anyway, to those who really do care I owe a massive thanks, and I will be writing a heartfelt tribute to them in my final post in the next few days, which is something I want to take my time over because I want to get it right.  I say final because the Ottermobile has been abandoned and it would therefore be “false” to call these writings Adventures from the Ottermobile.

Perversely I think it’s a pity because I’ve enjoyed writing this stuff; I’ve tried to be funny, entertaining, and sometimes I know it’s been silly but it’s always been the truth.  And I always have to write, because that’s what I do, or maybe I’ll get the hang of doing a CV and bag a job in a warehouse instead.  Who knows what’s around the corner?  That’s our “hook”.

But for the sake of my life I should call it a day, hold a gloved hand up and confess that 250 days on a van is quite enough and it’s time to look to my saviours and thaw my frozen bones.  Then next time I’m in the bus shelter and I meet the woman in the woolly hat and moustache, I’ll hopefully tell her I’m going to be OK.

“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.