Washed up in a land I didn’t know

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MY WORLD

Two words are prevalent in my mind as I begin to write the memoir of my time on the road: fucking hell. I do not plan to share further chapters of this with anyone other than my close circle of test readers but as I put my mind to the task in hand, the introduction – as it turns out – is quite a hook…

It came from nowhere and everywhere: it suddenly dawned on me that I’d fallen to the lowest place possible before death, yet the situation was of my own making. I hadn’t been trying to kill myself but it turned out I’d been doing a pretty good job without realising. 

There were many times when I could quite easily have met my end or come to more harm than I did in the event. In a way, I wished that someone else would end my life because I lacked the courage to do it myself. I did try. I took two overdoses but didn’t do a very good job of it: the story of a life which was doomed to continue.

Other people had a go. There was a time when I asked someone to help me.

Tom was an ex-Royal Marine. He’d been retired through ill health, largely because he bore mental scars from an act he’d had to commit whilst on service. He was an alcoholic. He had a better excuse than me: whilst serving in Afghanistan, Tom had killed a three-year-old girl. She’d already been raped, front and back. Her parents had been killed by the Taliban. Tom cradled the girl, trying to shield her from the crossfire around them. A Red Cross ambulance was en route but it was blown up by an IED. Another ambulance was at least a day away and there was no realistic prospect of rescue by helicopter. Surrounded by the enemy, Tom shot the girl through the head.

Tom and I were staying in what we generously referred to as the concrete bunker at the time. The bunker was literally that: a concrete shell. It was cold and damp but it did at least offer a degree of shelter, though little else.

Safety was sometimes improved by sleeping in shifts but in reality, we were both so drunk that we shared a hope that we’d fall asleep and not wake up again.

Tom actually climbed to the top of what we called “The Drop” as many times as me. The Drop was a death machine: we’d built it with one purpose in mind. Quite simply, it was a ladder propped up to the skylight we were fortunate enough to have. The skylight was broken, so we were also fortunate enough to have running water and air conditioning, thanks to the winter elements.

We’d spent many minutes setting up our operation: the ladder was at a 45 degree angle and we’d fashioned a length of electrical flex into a noose, which hung from the underside of The Drop.

I really wanted to christen the thing. I climbed the ladder and was about seven feet up when I put the flex around my neck. I hung from the underside of the ladder, with my arms holding the ladder behind me. I’d have looked like some sort of angel, my arms splayed behind me like wings, my chin on my chest as I looked at the concrete floor below me. Tom just needed to kick my heels.

For whatever reason, he missed. So I jumped. What we’d not reckoned on was The Drop being around seven feet and me considerably less.

Bollocks.

And so things continued. It was a life lived on the edge but one which turned out to be worth living. 

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A fine line of cocaine between genius and madness

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MY WORLD

“Stories only happen to those who are able to tell them”: so said Paul Auster, one of my greatest American literary heroes. I’m a writer and as such, I can tell stories. The one I’ve not told properly though is my own. Plenty of things have happened to me, so I have the stories and the ability to tell them. The blog served as a running commentary for a while and remains as a dark reminder of my breakdown. There was a lot which I had to omit or remove from the blog though, so it doesn’t tell the whole story. The new book which I’ve started writing will rectify that. More accurately in some cases, the book will right some misguided wrongs I made previously.

My frame of mind was different when I was maintaining the blog as a public diary: I was convinced that I was right and all those around me were wrong. I’ve learned and I’ve changed. I realise now that it was me who was wrong and that I was in denial. There were plenty of things I was right about though. So unlike the blog, the book will be less about me putting other people in their place and more about me dealing with myself. I’m only able to do that now that I’m able to see things differently, with the benefit of sobriety and hindsight. The worst is over and there’s a new life ahead. I’m living it but I must acknowledge what went before. If I’d not gone through all that I did, I wouldn’t have ended up where I am. I had to go through a personal hell, before almost accidentally ending up with a dream life.

With a working title of On My Radio – one of my favourite songs by one of my favourite ska bands, The Selecter – the book is not an autobiography but it is an autobiographical memoir of my time on the road, how I got there and how it changed me. Now is the time to write the book, as I have reached an ending of sorts to a period in my life; very much a new beginning as well.

I wondered whether stories of being a homeless alcoholic would be marketable: I’m not expecting a best seller but the story is worth telling for a number of reasons. Among the many experiences I had while on the road, some would make great pieces of fiction. This is fact though and just as I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve, so the stories will be the truth and they’ll be embellished only by the parts I had to leave out of the blog. Some of the names will have to be changed but I will tell it like it was. Even those who were privy to quite a lot don’t know the whole and may be quite surprised at some of the revelations. The book is a fairly big undertaking, so I’ve sought the advice of my peers and almost without exception, they’ve said that it’s a book worth writing. One went so far as to say that if the book is anywhere near as captivating as the blog then it will make for a good read.

I’m in a very privileged position: I get paid anyway, whether or not I write. I like to write though; I enjoy my job. The new book will be the story of how someone went from having almost everything and thinking they were happy, to someone who lost it all but found contentment. I went from being a rightwing church-going bigot, running a business and living a fairly lavish life; snorting coke and having the credit cards to cut the lines,  to a pot-smoking, Guardian-reading atheist, anarchist, feminist writer. Surely it would take quite some powerful influences to make such changes? My time on the road did that, so that’s the main reason for writing On My Radio.

Writing the memoir will most likely distract me a little from the other three books I’m writing but I feel that I’m in a position where I need to write it before I really move on: closure perhaps. The three novels remain works in progress but they’ll progress much quicker once I’ve got this off of my chest. Although it’s sometimes said that the easiest things to write about are those that you know and even yourself, writing about that period in my life won’t be easy because I hardly recognise the central character.

Meanwhile and in between times, the pulp and schlock fiction continue to churn out. My emotions are a little mixed on news that The Elephant in the Playroom has been accepted for publication. It is a shocker, to the extent that part of me wants to disassociate myself from it. It’s far more disturbing than COGS. Like COGS, it forces me to question things but where COGS was a tale told in a certain way, The Elephant in the Playroom provides no such luxury. I deliberately wrote it so that it would be read in a certain way. It’s stripped bare and it is not pretty. It’s guerilla writing; it’s minimal and confrontational. It’s as much about the style of writing as the subject matter itself. Most importantly though, it makes a point. It’s affecting and it ought to make the reader think: part of me pities them as this will be almost indelible in their minds. I will be judged and I can already see the two camps which will be the most vocal. There will be criticism but there’ll be debate: both confirmation that I’m good at my job. The Elephant in the Playroom is the kind of story which could be the making or the destruction of a writer in a less privileged position than me. Being self-employed means that I have even greater freedom as a writer and I have exercised my freedom of expression, not only of subject matter but of style. I would go so far as to say that if The Elephant in the Playroom doesn’t lead to debate, conversation, accusation, condemnation and possible investigation, speculation and judgement, then I’ve not done my job very well. It’s not courageous or foolhardy writing; it’s challenging. Clearly I relish a challenge.

As one of my other transatlantic literary influences and inspirations said,  “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”

“Genius might be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.”

(Henry Charles Bukowski (born Heinrich Karl Bukowski; August 16, 1920 – March 9, 1994),  who spent much of his life as a homeless alcoholic.)