…and Mr Sandman leaves hailstones
…and Mr Sandman leaves hailstones
THE WRITER’S LIFE
It’s now eight weeks since my reassessment for PIP and I’ve still heard nothing. It could be that the Department for Work and Pensions are still processing me, but my money was cut to a statutory amount a month ago, when my last two-year benefit period expired. I’m surviving without the money I used to live an independent life (the whole purpose of the benefit), but I have nothing beyond essentials. Everything else, I can no longer afford. I’m disabled, dehumanised, and it feels, disposable.
The timing couldn’t be more cruel. If I’m forced through the tribunals machine, the process could drag on for another 4-6 months. During that time there’s Christmas and my kids’ and parents’ birthdays. I can’t afford anything more than token gifts. I have just about enough money to maintain my monthly visits with the children, but little else. I’d like to visit my parents more, but I can’t afford to.
My dad’s diagnosis has changed. For the last six months, doctors thought he had hydrocephalus. He had fluid on his brain, which was drained, and everyone hoped he’d get better. But he got worse for a while. His condition was complicated by a serious neural infection requiring powerful intravenous antibiotics, and a fall resulting in three cracked ribs. All of which seemed to explain his long recovery. But although he’s better, he’s nothing like he was before this all started, when he got lost driving at night and I reported him missing and vulnerable to the police.
The latest prognosis is that dad probably has Parkinson’s, and I’d like to visit him while he still remembers who I am. But with my independence payment taken away, I can’t afford to. What a shame, that the UK benefits system is designed that way, to deny quality of life (independence), to aggravate mental illness with all this anxiety, and take away what was left of a life. A life is not a singularity, and each affects many others.
Shame on some of my so-called friends, who I loaned money in their times of need, but who never repaid me. I hope they enjoy their family Christmas, but that it’s marred by the prickly guilt of knowing they denied a friend what might have been his last. If a house is exorcised and you don’t pay the priest, will your home be repossessed? Karma can be a bitch of a haunting, but exorcism is easily arranged by settling debts (There’s a ‘Donate’ button on this blog).
Like most social tenants, my electricity is on a key meter, so like most poor people, I pay more for electricity and have to pay in advance. I won’t be troubling the meter too much, just putting on extra layers of clothing. A cynic might call it another social cleansing measure, by a fascist Tory government intent on population reduction by writing off costs, like disposable people.
I’m struggling, but I’m still here, hoping to find some humanity in the Department of Waste and Recycling that’s the benefits system. I’ll keep fighting to get what I’m entitled to, and hopefully regain my independence. Don’t forget me dad.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
There are few sounds more terrifying than someone trying your front door, but hearing keys in the lock is one of them. Lately I’ve been scrambling blindly for the keys to life, and put one in the lock to see if the door might open onto the string theory which contains my place in something, a history of me in a pot. Being British, I apologised to the door when I walked into it, and on the other side, something like a Korean re-unification…
Pot Noodles feature in Cyrus Song
Also lately (for a day) I’ve been removing the strangeness from an estrangement I had with an old friend. It was a sad and frustrating falling out, as we went back so far, to our days at school together in the 80s. When it was Nazi salutes and steel-capped boots, when we had Punk and Ska, when The Specials asked: Why? Given that I’ve been going through the Tory social cleanser, I was reviewing my situation anyway. My friend just asked how I’d been. I’ll put the kettle on. It won’t go with the rest of me, but I’ll try anything once.
It began when we parted company because I was a fascist drunk. Not the goose-stepping Nazi-type, but figuratively, a thoroughly objectionable capitalist and a drunken narcissist into the bargain. Quite how I’d turned out like that, I can’t think.
Drink took over and I just lost it. Lost the plot and the will to live, not knowing what was worth living for besides a constant battle with the craving. Why do we have to fight? I don’t know why I pushed everyone so hard, towards somewhere I didn’t know, so that eventually they pushed me. Did they really want to kill me?
A brief chronology then of my breakdown (as it’s come to be known, because it was an alcoholic and mental meltdown). We’d have to pick up from around 2003, when I met my ex-wife and we moved to London. I’d been working in print since school, and ended up spending 25 years married to the paper and ink, including three years of running a brokerage with the wife.
Print was traditionally a booze-fuelled industry, with deals being done in Bermondsey pubs just as they were in the bars of Fleet Street. I always liked a drink, so I suppose some things were inevitable. They get in your blood. Running a firm was the top of a steep final slope.
My customers were the ones who’d followed me from other firms, so the business just rolled in with little effort from me. I adopted some mental line in my sandpit, that I’d spent years working for other people, as sales director on commission, when I could take all the profit, and I felt I was owed a retirement (entitlement). While the wife ran the business from home, I was seeing customers and getting pissed. Always a temptation, the booze became my absolute ruler.
I got to the point where I’d wake up and have to go to the fridge for a swig of White Ace, just to stop the tremors. By the time I’d dropped the kids off at school and got to the local corner shop, I’d be rattling so much the owners would have to take the change from my shaking hand. I’d get outside, neck a can of tramp juice, and the tremors would stop. I’d get out of the flat every day as soon as I could, so that I could go drinking, even if that was in Mountsfield Park in Lewisham, with all the other drunks.
If there was a singular catalyst, it would be the knifepoint robbery in that same park. It was after that, in 2011, that I got a diagnosis of PTSD and eventually, underlying depression, from whence besides my alcohol-fuelled mind, never digressed.
I was in the care of an excellent psychologist for a while, but I was still drinking more, and I took it too far. I lost contact with Dr Martin when I had to leave the family home, and my wife, so long a single parent already because of me.
From Catford to Bexley, where the wife and father-in-law put down a deposit and paid the first month’s rent on a flat; a nice one in a converted manor house with a swimming pool. In the village, I found a love of drinking among the locals, and an area at the centre of the live poker scene. And drugs. Already playing online, I embraced this new opportunity, the drugs and the late nights. I started playing in casinos and I did quite well for a while.
Don’t play poker while drunk though (you never would). Because I did that. I ended up thanking my wife for all she’d done, by running the business into the ground and taking it for every penny as my addiction won, to the exclusion of all others.
I was headed down to a life of not caring, while my wife was made redundant, applying for benefits, and replacing the furniture she’d let me keep with Argos Basics. I’d visit once a week or so to see the kids, but I was always itching to get back to poker, drink and cocaine.
From Bexley, I went to Sidcup. I was in another relationship (with a fellow alcoholic) and I abused that as well. Three years after leaving the family home in Catford, I was on my way back to the other chez Laker, my parents’ in Tonbridge.
The last chance saloon was one I was sure I wouldn’t be thrown out of; these were my parents after all, so I could carry on drinking, knowing places to hide it. By her own admission, my mum policed me too heavily, but she was never going to be qualified to deal with an alcoholic.
To this day, mum throwing me out of the family home was the greatest act of love and courage I’ve ever know. We’re fine now and it was a bilateral thing, with dad having to support mum. But where me and mum didn’t talk for a while, dad came to find me a couple of times.
It was when we laid Jay to rest that I found out the upset I’d really caused, when some friends told me how badly it had affected my parents (mum and dad visited with friends while I was absent, with possibly only the leave of nature). My sister still blames me for the way dad is now, even though his ongoing neurological condition was diagnosed long after we all made up (except for my sister), and he now says that having me around makes him feel better. They say boys are closer to their mums, but never mind the bollocks. We’re equally close to any parent, but in a way unique to each of us.
When dad came and found me those times (in McDonald’s), he gave me some loose change. He didn’t specify what it should be spent on, least of all tell me not to spend it on booze. When it comes to the debate about giving homeless people money, I found my personal sidings when I went off the rails.
Alcoholism is an addiction, just like drugs. Unlike most drugs though, alcohol cessation – complete cold turkey – can be fatal. That’s when I found myself at an impasse, living on the streets, of no fixed abode. Because the cessation drugs are powerful, and those administering them need to know where the addict is. So I was prevented, excluded from doing that.
It’s a chicken and egg, the home and addiction thing. A couple of ex-servicemen I was on the streets with had the same problem: You’ll be given shelter when you cure your addiction, when the former was precisely what we needed to address the latter. When it comes to giving money to the homeless now, I do so without question or instruction. I know that temporary escape from the cold and threatening outdoors can be found in a blue tin. I know that can stop the delirium tremens, keeping an alcoholic alive. At least until they find shelter.
In the end, I went through a controlled drinking programme, a reductionist measure which required me to attend a rehab facility at random times of the day over a three month period. I could get called any day of the week – sometimes two, others five – at anywhere between 8am and 6pm, and I’d be required to give a breath sample within the hour. By then I was sofa-surfing, so I did at least have a base, albeit not a home.
To illustrate the extremes, near the beginning of the treatment, I blew 126 (microgrammes of alcohol to 100ml of breath, where the UK drink drive limit is 35 (I had no plans to drive)) at 9am. At that point, I was drinking nine litres of tramp juice a day. Towards the end of the programme, I blew 21 at 4.30pm. Now I drink normal cider throughout the day (a functioning alcoholic using controlled drinking, to keep the rattles at bay) and I smoke weed. One addiction for another, but smoking broadens my mind and has allowed me to write some pretty good sci-fi.
After sofa-surfing, I got a room above a pub (the irony) and spent a year there, before the landlord turned out to be a criminal and started threatening me, which played right into my hands with the local council housing team. They moved me here, to my tiny studio, with a social landlord, and where I’m on a rolling tenancy. That gives me the security of shelter I need to make whatever I do, with the rest of whatever life I have left.
It’s been a thoroughly dehumanising process, but one which has made me human again. Now with multiple PTSD diagnoses picked up from various events on the street (beatings, a bottling, a throttling, being set light to (which apart from the aggressor, is hilarious when you’re trying to sleep in a sleeping bag which complies with EU regulations and isn’t flammable), broken bones), chronic depression and anxiety, at least I know what I am: a Pinhead with a load of Post-It notes stuck on it, outward signs which I try to make sense of from inside my head and my solitary surroundings.
It was all my fault and I deserved to end up where I did. What most don’t give me credit for is having it within me to grieve every day. When you’re a recovering alcoholic, that’s tough, not to simply reach for a drink, like all those times before. But as at least one person (‘Millwall Tony’) has pointed out, to me (and I hope others get it): “You were fucking ill mate.” My parents get that too, having taken the trouble to educate themselves, so that they can educate others, who no longer question the terms ‘functioning alcoholic’ and ‘controlled drinking’.
I make no comparisons, but Dad’s been through a lot, with me and latterly his illness. He says it’s nice to have me around, that the past is done, and that he’s proud of me. Them being bilateral, mum concurs. If only my sister would join the remaining happy family dots, a final crossing of the winding river we all went down. I built bridges but she just can’t get over it.
On her last birthday (which she shares with Kirsty MacColl), I told my ex-wife I’ll never forget how she and her family gave me a chance, and of how I’m grateful to her and the kids’ step dad for saving the two young ones.
The kids are fantastically funny and intelligent young people, one a budding musical and computing scientist, and the other a multi-linguist. Everyone’s better off (except me. I’m fine and I have all I need, but it’s hardly what you’d call comfortable), most importantly, the kids. I’ve said all my apologies to them and their mum, so many times I’ve been told to stop. That was a long time ago, but I can’t help feeling guilty. That’s my life sentence, of missing them every day, but being able to value the time we now get together, and without the need to be chaperoned. It took a lot of work, on all sides.
I did all that. I caused all that for other people. But I also did something for myself: I found myself and I’ve tried ever since to make myself a better person to know than the sub-human I was.
The state of the country – divided far more than it was when we were punks in the 80s – and the world at large, they fuel my depression, and my writing. At home, we’re headed for open civil unrest. In America, I see civil war. I fear for the world my children have inherited, and it’s only in some vain hope that my small voice can join with others and get noticed that I keep going. Why should I live in fear? Because we and the next generation are the exploited, and so were our fathers (and mothers).
We are the pushead skulls. We are the stranglers and they are the damned, our two generations: La folie, and the history of the world, part one. There’s a guy called Pete here, rattling some test tubes around: says he’s got a plan.
I’m ashamed of what I did, and when I was drunk I tried twice to rid the world of me (the evidence of shoddy workmanship remains). I’m ashamed of what I represent: a human, when our species has so much to answer for; and a white British man, when the days of empire and the Christian forefathers killed and enslaved more people than the Nazis. History repeats and we’re seeing it now. I was the cause, and I have a moral duty to put things right, as we all have. My anxiety is crippling, and trips outside are rare, but better an armchair activist and still here, when there’s so much to do.
So what? So what, so what, you boring little…
It helps that I’m able to tell all this to a friend.
That’s why I write. Initially because I didn’t have anything else to do on the streets, but also because I found it easier to address some situations in fiction. It was never to make things somehow less real, but much of it wouldn’t be believed outside the medium of fiction, it’s too far-fetched. I had an epiphany, even though I’m a scientific atheist now. At the time, it was like my right wing got broke and I found the left one. Sort of a fallen angel, an Antichrist angelic upstart.
Somehow I managed not to drown. I found a way to kick my legs and keep my head above the water. It helped that there were others who saw me waving, and who came back to see what had washed up on shore: A liberal socialist, I swapped the boots for something more comfortable to be around. But I’m still crass. Doors like me, because I’m polite enough to apologise when I walk into them. I’m glad we could patch things up, when others are less accommodating. Why can’t they be the same?
I don’t care if any other friends return from estrangement. If they want to stay there, it’s where they placed themselves, and that’s out of my mind.
The longer story is on this blog, which I started when I was homeless. I regret a lot of what I did, but just as history can’t be erased, I leave it here as part of the narrative.
All things considered, I’m happier now. Like Douglas Adams, I ended up somewhere I never realised I wanted to be. So far I’ve written five books. That’s the story that was, and now is the start of the remainder.
Let’s leave the past where it belongs. We can pull it apart forever, but that would be a waste of the future.
As soon as you get your own things into what’s the nearest you’ll get to your own home, no matter how brutalist, you have life. Someone shut the door.
The Unfinished Literary Agency tells a longer story still, and Cyrus Song is worth a read. Signed copies are available on request, which will never be worth anything other than recording a moment in time.
“…If this all sounds a bit weird, that is, because it is. But it all somehow works and knits together in the manner of surrealist writers like Julio Cortazar and Otrova Gomas, with a substantial nod, of course, to Douglas Adams, who can make the impossibly strange seem mundane and ordinary. Steve Laker pulls this extraordinary juggling act off admirably well, producing a very good, thought-provoking, page-turning, and also at times darkly comic read.
Who knows—if you are looking for the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, you might just find it here, or in the ‘Cyrus Song’ of our planet. In the meantime, taking Steve Laker’s and Stephen Hawking’s advice, we all need ‘to keep talking’, and as long as there are books like these—keep reading.”
Stephen Hernandez, translator and interpreter.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
I’m into week seven since my PIP assessment, and none the wiser still. But having spoken to a friend (after being given a glimmer of hope by the mothership), I’m managing to reverse a paradigm. Rather than fear the unknown, I’m making the most of it. I’m still anxious, but I can multi-task while worrying.
Patricia Correl’s Writing Blog
My friend (we’ll call him Jacques, because my friend is neither a man nor French) has just been through the initial dehumanising stage of the DWP and Tory government social cleansing machinery. Jacques only got his Personal Independence Payment decision after eight weeks of waiting for the self-appointed powers to decide if he was worthy of a continued oxygen supply. They found in his favour, so now Jacques is a character in a story I’m writing.
What’s the point of waiting on the phone for 20 minutes to speak to someone, only to be hung up on when you ask the wrong question, or to be told my case is still being reviewed? Better to make use of time I can do nothing other with, to write.
After committing myself to finish this story in my last post, it’s developed. It now has a tentative working title of ‘The Plastic Population’, which actually doesn’t give too much away, and I don’t think anyone will see the ending coming anyway. As far as I’m aware, it’s a completely original idea, or at least a different plot device.
The story has a plausibility in science, and it pulls together a few recent phenomena: Plastic pollutants in the oceans have been found to be breeding grounds for new kinds of bacteria; Micro-plastics in every living organism on Earth could have carcinogenic properties we don’t know of yet; and humans have been attempting to find evidence of extraterrestrial life in cosmic radio waves. But maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong place. The story begins roughly (first draft) like this:
What if all of life, with its meandering trails, high rises and deep slopes, was the path leading us to something, somewhere we’d once wished for? We might have forgotten what that was, or it might be buried deep within our species’ subconscious, but still, dreams can come true.
Like a homeless drunk on the streets, there because it’s where the path he’d chosen led, what humanity needed was a new player in the game of life, one which would fundamentally change the way we look at ourselves and our understanding of the universe.
It wasn’t a common foe to unite previously warring factions, although in a way it was. It wasn’t an alien invasion, but in some ways it was that too. It was a cure for cancer, which ironically arrived like a message in a plastic water bottle…
Those are the bricks, and the cure for cancer is more analogy than literal spoiler. It’s a large tower to build, but it’s one to a kind of Babel. I’d much rather be writing and finding answers over the next couple of weeks in limbo, than staring at the walls not knowing, and counting the days in notches.
Barring a shit sandwich in the mail from DWP withdrawing my oxygen supply, The Plastic Population should be out in the length of a piece of string.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
After keeping me waiting for five weeks, throwing petrol on my depression and anxiety, The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have refused my re-application for PIP (Personal Independence Payment). They didn’t even have the decency to send a letter, and I found out when much less money than normal went into my account. No doubt the shit sandwich will arrive in the mail soon, after it’s gone through further bureaucracy.
A relative and employee of Theresa May at DWP, yesterday
I’ve been in receipt of the independence benefit for the last four years, and at my last assessment I must have seemed in worse health (because I am), but some appointed worthy who’s never met me, sitting self-importantly at a computer, has made a life-changing decision, to deny me what I’ve been entitled to for the last four years, and which I used to live an independent life. I can’t do that any more.
I may not be able to visit my kids or parents so often or at all. But what does DWP care? They know I’ve failed to kill myself before, as it’s on my hospital records. It couldn’t be that they wish me more success next time, surely? I hope they sleep well at night (and one day, don’t wake up).
Now I face the appeals process through to tribunal. I’ve done it twice before and won. This was a re-application, for a benefit I’ve been paid for the last four years. It all begs the question, why do this? Why incur all the extra expense and waste their time (and mine)? Because they want to wear people down so that they give up, roll over and die (it’s the Vogon way). But like a bad smell, I won’t go away.
With about £5 a day to spend now, I’ll have to be very creative with meals. And as the appeal process takes around three months, that’s Christmas nicely fucked up, possibly the last one I spend with my parents, thanks to the DWP and the Tory government’s social cleansing project. The last five weeks have made me ill but it didn’t kill me, and I won’t be swept from society by fascists. Apart from the roof over my head, the next few months will be like it was on the streets, and I survived that.
The singular, only, sole, lone, individual good thing I might be able to salvage in all of this, is that with nothing to do (eat, drink, or smoke), I might as well spend some time at the keyboard. If I can’t afford heating, I’ll get some fingerless gloves.
I have a tribunal process to document in fiction. I need to write, of the psychological horror this has been, of poverty, of the perverse torture by sick and twisted Nazis, and of exacting, violent and bloody revenge. The story of an impoverished writer, an irritant irritating, and literally (in literature) fisting some arseholes and scratching around inside.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Today is five weeks since my PIP assessment and I’ve still been told nothing. DWP acknowledged that they have all they need to assess my claim, so part of me thinks no news is good news. Based on previous experience though, most of me suspects they’ll conclude that I’m not entitled. If so, it’s taken five weeks to play a pretty sick trick on someone they know is vulnerable. But it’s all part of the Tory social cleansing machinery.
It’s anxiety and paranoia, and the reassessment process makes it worse. It heightens my conditions, like taking a Stabilo Boss to all the Post-It notes pinned to my head. Benefits claimants are fish in barrels at the best of times, but I’m simultaneously out of the water.
I saw the kids yesterday, so I now I have separation anxiety. I do miss them, every day, but the days after I’ve seen them are the hardest as they’re fresher in my mind. Everyone but me ended up in a better place after my breakdown, over five years ago now. It’s a testament to my ex-wife and the kids’ second dad that I now have two very engaging and curious young people to share the odd Sunday with.
I can think about plans but not make them. Visiting my parents and my kids costs money, which PIP has helped with over the last four years. With my mind confused and unknowing, I can’t write, or not coherently enough to hold all but the most surreal stories together.
I know I should broaden my horizons and maybe take up a new hobby, perhaps even one which might get me out more. The problem with being outside is, there are other people there. Maybe then a solitary pursuit, like fishing. But then there’d be some tosser (one who casts lines) who’s been doing it for years, telling me I’m doing it all wrong without actually helping (you know the kind of smug, elitist type, often train conductors or lorry drivers in their day jobs). So perhaps I’d get a boat, then float alone, fishing on a lake. It’s where my name came from after all. Then I realise I don’t have the money or the courage, so I stay as I am. Less a Laker (one who fishes from lakes) and more the ponder.
Gir by Thekeyofe
The only thing I have patience for is poker. I’ve been coaching and playing my sole regular visitor, my kid sis Courtney (‘The Courts’, or ‘WE33 WIDOW’ at the table), and she’s holding me to a 14-14 score line in our tournament of tournaments, albeit with some handicapping earlier on. She’s 21 today, she’s come a long way and gone through as much machinery as me, and we both kept the other alive at times. Sometimes we’ll have fish with our poker chips, and PIP helps with thanking a friend for their support with a take-away (and ensuring I eat something). Playing poker relies on having someone to play with. I can play online, but not having someone to talk to means my attention wanders and I could end up playing losing games and forgetting to eat, so I stick to live play.
The Courts and me started playing poker at the squat, and in some ways, this waiting game is like being back on the streets, when my only output was transcribing a few pages of handwritten notes I’d made as I led my transient life, never able to settle anywhere. Back then, I started writing as it was all I had (no TV, not even a radio, and I daren’t borrow too many library books for fear they’d be lost or stolen), so I wrote. Now I have more to do, but no patience to do it; everything around me, but no interest in it. I’ve become even more withdrawn, and withdrawal drills into deeper thoughts. Yet after all that, after all the talk about being depressed and in a rut; because of all that, I can see something.
I read something on the train yesterday, on my way to meet the kids. Essentially it said, be grateful of your own company if it’s all you have. Don’t waste time chasing other people, less so wondering when you might hear from them. Don’t put your life on hold for too many others, live the one you have left with whomever you can.
Right now, that’s just me and my adopted sister sometimes for a game of cards. Once a month, it’s precious time with the children their mum and step dad have brought up so well. Once this period of limbo ends, it’ll be more regular trips to spend time with my parents. Until then, I wait, like I have for five weeks. And during that month and a bit, I’ve written a lot which doesn’t make sense in pieces, but I can see how it will come together.
I’ve not lost the ability to write, just the means to edit my thoughts and make them coherent. While I reconstruct myself, I can at least see ahead and know that I have a lot of stories to tell, once I can stitch them together as analogies for the horrors of going through the social cleansing machinery, and how it can be used to find things in the mind you’d normally be too busy to be troubled by.
In future fiction, within the next 2-3 years, a number of technologies could combine and reduce in cost to become something really cool:
Take an AI home assistant (Siri, Alexa…), put it in a humanoid or other robot physical form, and you’ve got home help for lifting and assisting with physical tasks.
Introduce an app to design your own personification of a home help robot, send it to a 3D printer (which will also print the circuitry), and each AI becomes even more individual and a part of the designer.
I’d like to print one of these:
Shark Rex by Heckthor
To be continued…
A 45 RPM I wrote, which spins for about 14 seconds. It’s about stumbling back into life in Tonbridge after ten years in London, and all that’s meant over the last five years. I made it black and orange, as a kind of reflection of a one-way train ticket. Off the rails and onto the streets, but from where I live now, there’s a direct ThamesLink train line straight back to Catford…
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