Please do not lick the windows

THE WRITER’S LIFE

It’s been a while since I wrote in my diary, and personal blog entries have been scant over the last 18 months, while my life has been on hold. Someone let the brake pedal off though, and now my personal liberty has been restored. Now I have money in the bank, a regular modest income, and a life worth living.

Cow Car Nothing Worth Doing

This blog started off as a personal journal, but lately I’ve not had much I could write, because of so much unresolved in my life. I can blow off the dark glitter and write my open book once more, now that I’ve won my freedom and been compensated for the trauma inflicted by a battle which lasted a year and a half. It’s a story worth telling once more.

My doubters and detractors (mainly in the other life, away from here) are two distinctly separate but overlapping groups in the Venn Diagram of my social world. They might judge me as someone being paid to do as they please, to sit at home and avoid disease. But they weren’t there over the last 18 months. They didn’t see the consultations, the interviews and the final court tribunal, which led to here and which took a toll on my mental health. They didn’t see the separation anxiety from my family and the loneliness of social isolation. 

Now I receive the Personal Independence Payment I’m entitled to and a Severe Disability Allowance, both of which are the social cleansing machine’s recognition of my condition. It’s a combination of mental malfunctions which no-one judging from a detached position would be able to detect, but which become plain to those prepared to engage with me. It’s worth persisting with life, especially if it winds a few people up.

Much has changed over the last year and a half, including my dad’s health. A retirement home resident, he still remembers me and he’s looking forward to seeing me more, now I have the means to travel. My kids grew up too, although I still managed to see them every couple of months. Now I can spend days with them more often too, and we can do as we please without lack of finance placing undue restrictions on us. On this side of the 18-month war, they’re both teenagers, two of my favourite people and my two very good young friends.

I was out with the kids in London on Sunday, something their mum suggested as money wasn’t such a big issue. I was grateful for that and we enjoyed a full day, starting with lunch somewhere other than a Wetherspoons. With the capital offering the world as our culinary oyster, we went to Nando’s instead.

London wasn’t quiet (it never is) but it was far less busy than normal, even for a Sunday. We’re not too neurotic about Coronavirus, so I just told the teenagers not to lick any windows. They wouldn’t have to, because we had some money.

Later in Piccadilly, we paid an impromptu visit (at £25 for adults; £18 each for under-16s; plus £6 for a locker as bags aren’t allowed in) to Body Worlds, Gunther von Hagens’ now permanent exhibition of plastinated people, providing a guided tour for the still-autonomous around our shared human anatomy.

More than the tarred lungs of a smoker, or the swollen liver of a drinker, I was struck most by the shrunken brain of an Alzheimer’s victim. If I hadn’t had my two teenage friends with me, I might have lost face and broken down at the tragedy of another shrunken mind in a retirement home, which still remembers me. Then again, those young people have never forgotten I’m their dad, and they didn’t give up on me.

It’s good to have my personal liberty back, especially when I can appreciate it because so much has changed. Funny how life works. Now I need to use it more for the benefit of others, which is one for those Venn segments of my life to suck on.

Monkey Black heart Coronavirus

Messages from Brobdingnag

THE WRITER’S LIFE

A lot’s changed since the last time I wrote to you. I hope you’re okay. Wherever you are, I thought I’d write down what’s going on in my life, because I know you read my blog.

Brobdingnag

This is just a synopsis. I’ll write the chapters which led to it all another time.

Recently I’ve done a couple of things I’ve not been able to for a while: I had a day out with my kids (another chapter), and I visited my dad with my sister and niece (a further chapter). I’m having lunch with them all on my birthday weekend in May (another book, after the next two).

My life will become more enabled now that I’ve won my battle with the Department for Work and Pensions (the chapters I’ll fill in, now that I can write them). A recent tribunal hearing found that I’m entitled to the Personal Independence Payment I’d been denied, so I’ll regain my freedom and liberty. The machine didn’t cleanse me from its social ideal.

Dad’s fully-installed in a retirement home, which isn’t what anyone wants, but it’s the only place equipped to deal with him now that his dementia is in almost complete control. It’s a cruel illness which killed the man we know, even though he’s still breathing. It’s his birthday today, so I sent a card to his new home with a note:

Dear dad,

At 78, you’re like an old vinyl record, full of memories:

My very first memory is sitting on the front step of our old house, waiting for you to come home on your motorbike. You pointed to the chrome exhaust and said, “Don’t touch that.” I didn’t. You’ve always looked out for me.

When I was growing up, you’d read us stories. The real-life ones are where the most treasured memories are. You helped me learn.

When I was older, you’d do casual work with Mick, your friend from school. His son Kev was older than me, and I wanted to be a part of working with the men. You took me with you. I didn’t get paid like you, Mick and Kev, but the next morning you came into my room and put some change by the bed: “That’s for helping,” and gave me money out of your own pocket.

I remember.

Throughout my teens, you drove me and my friends everywhere. I’ll never forget dad’s taxis. You helped me with my social life.

You bought me my first bike, took off the stabilisers, then bought me a car. You gave me freedom. You gave me liberty.

In 2001, when I got stranded in America, you phoned my hotel, just checking in from 3500 miles away. Never far apart.

And when I was on the streets, you came and found me in McDonald’s, just to see how I was. You always made sure there was food on the table.

You used to tell us such simple stories. I write it all down now so we can remember together. You were always there for me.

Thanks for being my dad.

Mum and dad won’t be able to join us for my birthday lunch, as London’s a bit of a trip too far now for dad. I’ll take the parents out another time nearer to home but for everyone else, London is most central and I’d like to return to my spiritual home for my 50th. Seeing as I can’t avoid it, I might as well go out and write some more chapters.

Pinhead SSE31

First I’m having the lunch some thought would never happen, with my kids, my sister, my niece, my ex-wife, and the kids’ step-dad. In the afternoon, the young ones and me will be in and around London. When they’ve all gone home (about 6), I’ll pop back to ‘spoons to see if anyone turned up and waited. I’ll bring Marmite sandwiches.

I’ve not seen many people besides my real and adopted family since my alcoholic breakdown gave old friends a right to judge and condemn. Those who’ve kept in touch are welcome to come and meet the family. It’ll be interesting to see who walks in from outside, even if to just cure their own curiosity about whether you can have a conversation with an alcoholic over a drink in a pub, like we used to.

Octopus Motherfucker

For now I’ve got through a lot of what I’ve been unable to tell you, because the stories had no end. Some concluded, while others continue to be written. This was just a synopsis of how things change, and how social isolation can be cured.

Typewriters as carry-on luggage

THE WRITER’S LIFE | POETRY

My typewriter uses magnets to get the hammers to hit the paper, because I need help to press the keys. Don’t ask me why I eat my cornflakes from a coffee mug with a small spoon: I’m quite content and I know what I’m doing, putting my writing into the overhead locker. 

It’s been like that since my right wing broke and I crash-landed on the streets. Unlikely to ever regain the heady financial heights of running a company into the ground and milking it for all it was worth, the left wing poet started crowing.

The lead is still in my chest, the flapping in the gutter never allowing me an escape through the portcullis of a wrought iron drain cover. Sober now but always an alcoholic (a medical fact), and forever toxic to some of those whose lives I touched, writing is my therapy and an escape from social isolation. Sometimes that’s just a few words to the gathered audience of myself.

We wrote a poem about what’s in and out of the Cerberus head, for one a micro fiction tale of several thousand pounds used as a bankroll to play poker, before I had to pay a supplier to keep my knees, when he called round at my converted manor house flat. I needed to be shot down.

TWO-WAY X-RAY

Broken right wingIf I had a hammer and a fuzzbox

With my mind full of ghosts, it helps to spew into the typewriter. If I were to exorcise everything, I’d need an eternity in which to remain awake. That’s when I talk to myself, often all night. There’ll usually come a point where I realise everything I’ve said can be edited and condensed, which is why my longhand notes fill a wall (I keep a notepad next to my bed).

How you’re feeling in your own room is like the 19-word synopsis for this post in the verse above, about the fuel at both ends of the candle, all day and every day: depression.

But the strange thing is, that thing which envelops me is also a comfort blanket. When you’re alone, your own brain can become your enemy, so you make friends with one of its quirks.

Let’s go.”

Why?”

Because one day we won’t be able to.”

That’s why, if someone gave me a big red button to switch it all off, reset my brain and be ‘Normal’, I’d refuse. I’ve seen what’s considered normal, and I don’t like it. Because when you find a place where you can be yourself, where you can have a ball playing you on stage, that’s a place you want to be yourself, even if you’re only dancing in front of the mirror. Typewriters carrying on as luggage.

Orange typewriter poem

In here, I can meet you, me, and everyone we see. I can explore the universe and tell tales of what happens to us in the future. You are the spaceport security scanning my typewriter, and you don’t mind sitting next to me on a spaceship. Thanks for travelling with me, even when we have to land the ship at Jumbo Harbour to refuel.

Every night has a day, and every day has a night, depending on when you sleep. That’s meant to dictate when you eat. Thanks for not questioning why I use pencils as chopsticks.

Installing windows in cardboard

THE WRITER’S LIFE

EDIT: My MP got a reply from the chief of HMCTS (below). Previously…

As we enter July, my battle with The Department for Work and Pensions moves into its tenth month. In the time it would have taken to grow new life inside me, I’ve written little as I’ve been exhausted by the struggle to regain the Personal Independence Payment I’ve been entitled to for the last four years, taken away like the benefits of millions of other claimants, along with much of the community social care infrastructure, so that this morally bankrupt, murderous fascist Tory regime can recover the vast sums they’ve wasted on Brexit, while awarding tax cuts to the wealthy and pay rises to themselves.

Ben FerenczBen Ferencz, The last Nuremberg prosecutor

I’ve not written much about the process of appealing an unfair benefit decision, because the incompetence of the government departments and out-sourced agencies involved is beyond fiction and farce. In desperation then, I wrote to my MP (a Tory), and in fairness to him as an individual, he did his job. I don’t have a resolution to my financial and mental health problems, but I’ve had the most coherent response I’ve had throughout this process from the social cleansing machine. My self-confinement box has a window.

In summary, I may still have another year to wait before I’m out the other end of this tunnel, and that’s going to be a year almost as hellish as the last, but I can see where I’m going. I’m over what could have been an immediate threat, if the machinery had somehow digested me completely and my housing benefit been cut, rendering me homeless (this time it wouldn’t have been my fault). What’s gone is a lot of the doubt, not knowing what’s going on because the machine is deliberately difficult to talk to. Now I’ve had human contact, from people who’ve taken the time to review my case as an individual. I feel slightly less dehumanised and statistical.

If I’m going to move on, I need to put the war with the machine to one side. Everything is in the hands of others now, and I can do nothing but wait. It’s a different kind of waiting than before, because at least I know I’m waiting for something.

But this isn’t all about me. This is for the thousands of others fighting for their lives with the social cleansing apparatus. My books are always free for the taking of leaves. If what I’ve done gives anyone else ideas, then I’ve not just written to shift this particular infection from my chest.

Here then is the abridged version of the last nine months, in the emails I’ve exchanged since making human contact inside the machine. Once I’d infiltrated it, I took advantage of the privilege to barely disguise a few side swipes. They must think me mad.

First, the email I sent to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) in a fit of deliberate, barely coherent frustration, when the machine appeared to have chewed my case up and shit it out the other end, and which I copied my local MP into:

Dear Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service,

I’m growing concerned that I’ve not been given a date to appeal DWP’s decision to deny me PIP. I have a letter confirming that the case is active and that DWP have responded. I also have an SMS alert advising that I’d be given a hearing date by 7th June. The SMS provides a link to check the progress of my case, but when I enter my surname as requested, I’m told that name doesn’t match the appeal reference. It’s now one week since the date I was hoping to be advised of an appeal, so I hope someone can help. It seems the automated systems are at almost human pains to make life difficult, so I’m hoping for a more reasoned human input from the programmers.

I hope my local MP (Hi Tom) might forgive my unsolicited inclusion of him as a recipient of this, but not ignore it. My unconventional approach is representative of the many who wouldn’t be so bold. I represent the tip of an iceberg of people being slowly killed by the policies of The Department for Work and Pensions, presided over by his Conservative colleague, the Work and Pensions Minister, Amber Rudd.

I’m concerned that something may have gone amiss, so would be grateful of some advice as the situation has been ongoing with DWP since September (not your fault, I know). I’m writing to you in a state of personal desperation, in the hope I find a human, as this is the latest set-back / hold-up in my attempts to win back ‘benefits’ (human rights) I’m entitled to, and which the DWP seem to have a social cleansing agenda in the efforts and costs they incur to deny someone their personal liberty and independence. You are also the last place my case, my records and my paper trail existed. You’ll understand I hope that I don’t want to take this up with DWP as they are the opposing party and I don’t want to give them an excuse to cut off the remainder of my benefits (I’m now on non-enhanced ESA only).

If this is an opportunity to submit additional personal testimony as evidence, then I’ll add that DWP have made me much more unwell than I was when this process started. I suspect that’s their aim. I suffer from depression, anxiety and paranoia (as detailed in my original PIP questionnaire and notes on where I disagreed with the assessor (a physiotherapist, I believe, assessing a mental health claimant) in my mandatory reconsideration request.

DWP’s deliberate aim of derailing my progress is blatant in the paper trail of incompetence I have accumulated. Beginning with their mistakenly treating my request for a mandatory reconsideration as a new application. I need to ensure therefore that this appeal is to retain the PIP I’ve been paid for the last four years. Furthermore, DWP’s mistake has led to me being called for a health assessment for ESA, when I’ve been in the support group for the last four years. I have had to reschedule once already as the prospect of having to attend another assessment triggered a panic attack. When DWP mistook my request for a mandatory reconsideration, they sent me 800 pages of copy: my original application, and the same with notes for my reconsideration, all in duplicate. They seem to have two cases running at the same time, when I also have a letter from them setting out my ESA payments for the year ahead.

This is having a severe effect on my life: PIP qualified me for the self-carer (enhanced) element of ESA, which ceased at the same time as the assessor denied me the PIP I’d received for four years. As I live alone, I’ve been unable to care for myself (with help from friends) as I did when I was in receipt of the payments I’m entitled to. Again, I suspect this is part of DWP’s agenda, as well as grinding down my personal spirit with this whole process.

I’ve become socially isolated since my money was withdrawn. Without company, my anxiety and paranoia (and of course, depression) have grown worse. Where I was previously able to cope with flashbacks to events which caused my PTSD (the original knife attack in Lewisham, then various assaults on me when I was homeless and transient), I’m finding them gradually stronger and more disabling. If DWP’s ultimate goal is to reduce the number of benefits claimants by killing them, they should know that they’ve already caused me suicidal thoughts. It’s only the thought that I might get to see my children more often when I get PIP reinstated which keeps me going.

I understand PIP isn’t for helping with family and social needs (DWP have told me so in one of their many dehumanising letters), but being able to see my family is the nearest I have to being away from complete social isolation. My dad has just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and DWP’s actions mean I may not see him again while he still remembers me. I feel not only that I’ve been dealt with unfairly by DWP but quite cruelly in fact.

The paperwork I have from DWP is overwhelmingly confusing and contradictory (perhaps deliberately so), so perhaps this submission of anecdotal evidence might prompt them to audit their dealings with me so they can see the errors they’ve made.

I would be grateful if someone could advise me of the status of my appeal, so that I may present myself to three professionals with the appropriate knowledge to judge my entitlement to PIP.

If someone has taken the personal time and trouble to read this, then please understand that I am genuinely grateful if I’ve finally been heard by a fellow human. I’m desperate, alone, afraid, and in need of some help to get my life back in my hands.

Apologies for length.

Cheers,

Steve.

That was just over a week ago. To his credit, my MP was quick to raise the matter with HMCTS himself:

Dear Mr Laker,

Thank you very much for your e-mail. I am grateful that you have raised this matter with me, and am sorry to hear about your troubles securing your PIP.

I have written on your behalf to Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunal Service. I attach a copy of this letter for your information and will be in touch as soon as I receive a reply.

Please let me know if there is any further action you would like me to take urgently on this issue otherwise I shall await their response.

Best wishes

Tom

HMCTS letter

Thoroughly nice chap. And today, I heard back from the courts:

Dear Mr Laker,

I am sorry that you have been given misleading information by our Track Your Appeal service. Unfortunately, the waiting times for a hearing date at Ashford are quite lengthy. Currently, the average waiting time for a PIP appeal to be listed for a hearing is 62 weeks. Your appeal is now 16 weeks old. Waiting times are only estimates and they do fluctuate.

I can appreciate that this is very disappointing and not the response that you were hoping for. I am going to treat your email as an urgent hearing request, which can then be considered by a Judge – they will make a decision about whether an urgent hearing can be granted.

Miraculous. Otherwise 62 weeks to wait for an appeal: It’s indicative of just how many appeals there are against DWP decisions, and an indictment of the fascist Tory social cleansing machine driving them. I’ll try to stay alive that long, where others might not make it (all by design of the cleansing system). I let my MP know and thanked him for his help:

Hi Tom,

HMCTS got back to me. I have to say that a 62 week wait for an appeal is indicative of the state of DWP and their agenda of denying payments to worthy claimants, and further observe that this whole approach must be costing the social cleansing machine much more than it would to pay deserving claimants rather than make them ill by making them feel like criminals begging for their human rights.

Nonetheless it’s a reply, and reassurance at least that my claim isn’t lost.

Thank you for your assistance sir. Although I’m not a Conservative voter, it’s nice to know there are humans in the party (I’m only repeating the general rhetoric in some sections of community). On a personal level, I’m very grateful that you took the time and for your help.

Cheers,

Steve.

Update: My MP got a reply from the chief of HMCTS:

Dear Mr Laker,

Please find attached a copy of a letter I have received from Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, following my letter on your behalf.

I appreciate that this may not be the response you were hoping for. If you would like me to take this issue further then please let me know precisely what further steps you think might be required.

Best wishes,

Tom

HMCTS Page1

HMCTS Page2

Although patronising in places, at least I’ve made contact, and I have The Samaritans on speed dial. So that’s all for now. There’s nothing more I can do, except try to put it aside in my mind for the next year (although being skint is a daily reminder). Although I don’t feel fully in control of the situation, making contact with human operators of the machine has cleared some creative space in my mind. It pays to rattle the cage and speak to your abductor.

My writing hiatus has lasted a human gestation period, and I have a lot of material backed up and waiting to come out. Bigger subjects; things on my mind, now that I’ve escaped the Borg which the fascist apparatus made me part of. The machine stole my time. It’s time I got back to being a writer.

Increased risk of independence

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Almost exactly six months since the process started, I’ve made progress in regaining the ‘benefit’ of Personal Independence Payment (PIP). There’s a long way to go, and I might have been out the other side of the mincing machine by now, were it not for the Vogon incompetence of the Department for Work and Pensions. But I’m one stage nearer to winning a human right back from the Tory social cleansing apparatus. Here’s what’s happened so far, including an insight into the dehumanising methods the machine employs to encourage applicants to give up (on life, to kill themselves).

Vogon assessorA DWP decision-maker

In short, it’s like being put on trial when you’re reaching out for support. Meanwhile I’ve survived the last six months on charity, but with little of the independence I had six months ago.

Way back on 3rd September last year, I was required to attend a biannual health assessment, or ‘Fitness for work’ (despite being signed off sick pretty much for life). The assessments are out-sourced to a private company (with shareholders focussed on profits, and whose directors recently awarded themselves £40m in bonuses (presumably for saving the government so much money by denying benefits to claimants)), and the assessors are all ‘medically qualified’. But unlike a GP who might know the claimant personally, or another health care specialist who may understand their patient’s condition, these out-sourced assessors are ‘medically qualified’ as having once worked in any field of medicine. At my most recent appointment, the assessor was a physiotherapist: hardly the best qualification for understanding mental health, which is where my disabilities lie.

The assessments are timed to be around 3-4 weeks before a claimant’s previous benefit period ends. The initial decision takes at least six weeks, so benefits are withdrawn before a decision is made. This deliberate timing is just one of a number of factors which stack the odds against the applicant by making the whole process as difficult as possible.

My depression was diagnosed as an underlying contributor to a number of my life functions back in 2011, following a knife-point robbery after I’d been drinking in Lewisham. After an initial diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), my alcohol dependence was linked to depression, where one quite happily fuels the other and often leads to the kind of mental breakdown I had in 2013, when I was unable to cope, so I drank my life away, lost everything and ended up on the streets, where I found many more causes for the multiple PTSD diagnoses I now have. I have physical function, but it’s impaired by my anxiety. This has entitled me to PIP for the last four years, as I’m almost constantly anxious of reminders from a life on the road haunting me with threats of repeat. All of this had gone into my re-application form, and was conveyed verbally while not being able to maintain eye contact with the government-outsourced automaton.

Like so many others, my application was denied, and I was judged to require no help with anything, by someone who’d never met me before and didn’t care to know me. The next stage then is to ask for a ‘Mandatory reconsideration,’ which concludes as the first assessment found, after a second decision-maker has given the initial application a cursory glance (which takes a further 6-9 weeks). It’s just kicking a can down the road. It’s at that point where one is able to appeal to have their case heard at tribunal. This is where the phone calls to DWP’s PIP helpline engage gears in the social cleansing machinery. I was sent the wrong letter by DWP, so was prevented from launching an appeal. On that occasion, it turned out they’d treated my request for a mandatory reconsideration as an initial claim, despite the fact they’d already declined the latter, and asked me to notate the 32-page report from my assessor and decision-maker.

Finding someone who’ll treat you as human at DWP is like a game of telephone Russian roulette. Sometimes you’ll strike lucky, but often you won’t. You’ll fail, or that’s how you’re meant to feel. But back to the telephone system, the largest grinding machine in the apparatus, like a steam punk combine harvester protecting a Victorian dehumanising farm behind it. If DWP were a private company, they’d be as financially bankrupt as their government is morally, all the while committing economic murder.

If the Spring movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons had words, I’d know them by heart, having spent several hours in all on hold. But they play the Karaoke version, at deafening volume, and as though through a really cheap, tinny sound system. That distortion of reality is only the start of a process designed to break you down, without even any direct human contact, like military drones operated remotely and killing civilians.

While listening to Antonio’s work being strangled, there’s no indication of a caller’s position in the queue or the time it might take to be answered. My waiting time has averaged around 20 minutes every time I’ve called, which has been daily for the last couple of weeks. Once you get through, you’re in a minefield.

Ask a question they can’t answer and they’ll cut the line (never lose your patience or raise your voice. My tongue is sore from being bitten many times). Even when you think you’ve got somewhere, once you’ve had your query (their mistake) rectified, they simply don’t do as you’ve asked them to, and which they say they will. In fits of wanton inefficiency, they send the wrong paperwork, lose information you’ve sent in, or forget to act at all. Anyone less able (infirm, with a shorter fuse, with less tenacity) would give up, which is what they want. It becomes like a conspiracy against the person, and with depression and anxiety comes the third of the unholy trinity in my head, the paranoia (that this will never end).

I reached the end of some sort of tether today, when I tried for the fourth time to extract the ‘Manadatory Reconsideration Notice’ necessary to start an appeal, because I’d been sent three copies of the initial refusal in the course of as many weeks. Despite DWP allowing themselves up to nine weeks to respond to applicants, it’s only 28 days allowed when the boot is on the other foot (although it’s more like your opponent removing their outer footwear to lend you their socks). So when it came to asking for the correct letter to be sent by post today (DWP use 2nd Class mail), I had little faith in my fourth attempt being successful, or of the dates on the incorrect letters being changed to give me back the time DWP had wasted. My period of grace to appeal was coming to an end. I was running out of time.

I don’t believe in God, but if he (or the aliens, or whomever) woke me up this morning, they hadn’t finished with me yet. They had plans for me. I didn’t so much pray before I got on the phone to DWP, as prepare myself to break down if I met yet another wall, after a further several minutes of excruciating Vivaldi and of eating my own teeth. The game of telephone Russian roulette got me through to someone who was human, and like any good operator at a functional enterprise, they put my call through to a different department. I feared being lost in the system again, but I’d found myself on the phone to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS). The divine intervention, the extraterrestrial contact, whatever it was which answered my half-arsed prayer, what happened different today was circumnavigating DWP.

I found myself talking to a human at HMCTS, who told me I could launch an appeal against DWP online. This was news to me, and not information which DWP will volunteer themselves (they don’t want to be sued). But now they’re ‘The defendant,’ and thanks to that (God-sent) human (or alien) at HMCTS, my appeal is now lodged, with me as ‘The appellant’. If I’d been told I could do this a month or two ago, I might be out the back of the machine by now.

There’s a long way to go still. I have to attend the appeal hearing and win, then I have to wait a further 4-6 weeks for my payments to be reinstated. But it’s hopefully more of a downhill slope now than the slow and steep one which got me to this great height and nearly had me throw myself off it. Because it did, and now I can admit it. There were times over the last six months when DWP’s incompetence convinced my paranoid mind that I couldn’t overcome it. I couldn’t see an escape from the frustration, and instead saw a life where I’d have no independence. That was one I didn’t want to live.

It means I can get on with life while I wait. It means I can regain my independence, by spending the time I’d have liked with my parents, and more with my kids (And being more cheerful company). I need to win the appeal, but I have the last two times, and over 70% of appeals are successful. So it begs the question: Why incur the expense? Why put people through it? Because in fascist economics, enough will be beaten that those who make it to tribunal only represent a few of those who originally applied. This is not Britain’s Got Talent.

That’s where I’ve been for the last six months, in some competition where the aim is not to fail, but everything’s thrown at you to ensure you tire and give up. It’s been a constant worry, day and night. I’ve not been sleeping or eating. I’ve not been taking care of myself, which is what happens in the deeper depths of depression, and I’ve become more unwell. That’s lived in my mind with me alone in the midst of it, unable to explain what I can’t understand, and once thinking I couldn’t carry on in that confusion. I reached out for help and I’m still on public trial. How many others don’t make it?

Discouragement conspirator

I deal with the life inside my head by employing fiction to try to convey what’s in there, to make it more entertaining than the reality, and perhaps helping me to understand it by getting it all out while not being completely open. It’s my writing as therapy. Now I can write those stories I already outlined, but which I couldn’t concentrate on because a Vogon Bureaucrat would creep in from the real world which was consuming me. I need to rebuild this home I made for myself, by insulating it with words. Our minds are a dangerous place, mine especially so, when I have so much time to dally there alone and excluded.

Your pain could be for a reason, a necessary path which is already predetermined to get you to somewhere you once wished you were. You may not want to exist right now, but someone’s glad you do. Keep moving and try not to dwell, for this too shall pass. Now I can write again.

Buy me a coffee one off

When your best friend is fictional

THE WRITER’S LIFE

While I remain in the government’s social cleansing machine, now in my sixth month of battling to win back my personal independence (a ‘benefit’ which some might call a human right), I’m not normally expecting anyone to visit me unexpectedly, so I was surprised when my doorbell rang earlier. Then I remembered I’d replaced the batteries.

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Whoever was there (it could have been anyone, given I was expecting no-one), I was always going to be surprised when I opened the door, but I hadn’t imagined I’d be as surprised as I was to see who it was, which was surprising in itself, seeing as I’m a writer who’s meant to be able to see these things. But I write best when everyone else is asleep.

It was Doctor Hannah Jones, a character I created originally for Cyrus Song, and who’s appeared in various short stories, where she’s met Simon Fry many times. He’s been over before (first when he suggested we meet, when we had Pi, then when we made flans), but I’d never met her, until now. She was just as I’d imagined (I wrote her): attractive, smart, and disarming.

Hi,” she said. “What happened to your face?”

Hello Hannah,” I replied, “nice to see you too. What about it?”

Well, I’m used to seeing you in character. Now I can see what’s beneath the words.” Which was odd, as I was at pains to explain.

That’s odd,” I replied, “because I knew what you looked like before you ever started talking, but when you did, the way you looked changed.”

Well, you wrote me.” Which was true, but Hannah had actually written herself, which I could never really explain. She sat at my desk. “Why did you ask me round?”

She’d brought her own drink, which was handy. And Hannah swigs from the bottle, because she’s a thug. So we drank, with her at the desk and me on the couch, like it was her office and I was her psychiatric patient (she’s a vet).

Tell me about your childhood,” Hannah said. “Could no-one else be bothered to come over?”

People visit,” I replied, “but I can’t really engage with them at any depth.”

And you find me deep?”

I thought I might see if I could do what you do, and write myself.”

But you’re you; why would you need me to do that?”

Because I don’t feel like I know myself lately, and I need a way to do that.”

And that’s me?”

I suppose it is.”

But who am I? Aren’t I a part of you?”

Only a small part. Each of us is partly everyone else we know. Not just because we’re all connected to the universe anyway, but none of us is truly ourselves. We’re all a montage of other people and their stories.”

But we each have our own lives and history, which surely makes us what we are?”

Yes, but what if there was no-one else around to know that? See? We’re all made of the people we know, including ourselves. Most of us are afraid of that if we’re honest.”

That’s deep, Simon.”

Steve.”

Oh yeah.”

I don’t get many visitors, and little conversation. I can talk to myself and to my blog, but I find it easier if I’m talking to a person, even if I don’t have anyone to do that with. And I can be more open like this, writing fiction which isn’t really that, but real life told as such.”

Is that you ducking the issues?”

Far from it. I spend too much time wrapped up in myself and getting confused. This is my way of clearing my mind, getting things off my chest, confronting myself.”

So you don’t really need me.”

I need someone to talk to.”

You need someone to write for. This is an outlet for you, a means to write.”

It’s my coping mechanism. Even when I do see real people, I can’t open up. They’d have to have immense patience, I wouldn’t get everything out, I’d feel I’d burdened them, and I’d be in their debt.”

So you invited me round to be a captive audience.”

I wasn’t even sure you’d turn up.”

Is that why you’ve not cooked tonight?”

Yeah, I normally do that when I’m on my own.”

But you’re not.”

Other than you, I am.”

But when you’re here talking with me, you feel like a writer?”

Yes, because I’m writing this.”

This is quite surreal.”

I’m a surrealist.”

Do I have free will?”

Of course you do. Even though I wrote you. In fact, I wrote you with more freedom than I’ve ever known.”

I need to eat, so you’d better get some food in. But never forget, I don’t really exist.”

Doctor Jones decided to hang around for a while to help me, but she’d sleep on the couch.

Maybe I can keep writing, despite outer influences intent on stopping me. Only if I let them. To be continued (again).

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Doctor Hannah Jones first appeared in Two Little Things, the short story which spawned Cyrus Song. She’s also cropped up in various related prequel (A Story Tied by Strawberry String), sequel (Quantum Entanglement in Hamsters) and sideline stories (The Invention of the Pencil Case).

The empty armchair in the corner

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Today would have been my auntie Margaret’s birthday, her 76th in fact. In life, we weren’t all that close, but I see now how we had so much in common. I think what a waste it was, to take her so early (she was 51), and selfishly, about how much she’d have enriched my life now. But then sometimes, just every now and then, I swear I can feel her around me.

Empty chair

I believe in ghosts, insofar as I feel a connection to a spirit world I believe exists, which fits in with my understanding of quantum science. Essentially, for every chosen action in life – from the personal down to the molecular level – there are countless alternatives which weren’t brought into reality (the universe we inhabit) by a catalyst, but which still exist in parallel. So when we die, we continue to exist in one universe, where we’re dead and people mourn (or celebrate), while passing into another, where we’re no longer able to do much of what we could before (like interact with people), but where we nonetheless continue to live in a different physical form. Sometimes I’m aware of my auntie’s presence, because odd coincidences occur, like little signs.

She was the more the radical of two sisters (the other being my mum), a spinster who lived with my nan. My parents would visit them every Sunday, and knowing that 14-year-old me would be bored, my auntie would rent out horror films on VHS for me to watch in an armchair in the corner.

Margaret was a keen royalist and passed long before the internet. She’d conduct her study and research by borrowing books from libraries and visiting historic houses. I was always indifferent to royalty, until I started watching documentaries on TV a couple of years ago, as though a guest had asked me to switch channels, then researching further history online (and doing nothing with it besides learning).

Still now, when I’m watching anything regal, I feel I’m not alone, sometimes when I’m watching horror films too. I can’t explain it, but I can assure you you’ll know when you’re in the presence of a ghost, sitting in the empty seat right next to you.

These last few months I’ve been wasted, not on drink or drugs, but unable to concentrate because of my ongoing battle with the Department for Work and Pensions. With what seemed like deliberate insensitivity, they were kind enough to write to me on Christmas Eve, telling me that after reconsidering my application to regain my independence, I still can’t have it. This despite me pointing out the many errors and untruths in the assessor’s report. So I now face the remainder of the dehumanising process at tribunal. In the interim, I’m poor and unable to leave the studio.

It’s affected my writing, I’ve written very few new stories, indefinitely postponed one planned book and not started any others.

Then someone pointed out to me that I might be somewhat cutting off my nose to spite my face, that if I wallow in my own misery, I’m just being a bit of a fascist to myself. They reminded me I’m a writer. As if to confirm this, my kids bought me the most beautiful pocket notebook for Christmas. Margaret would have doted on the kids, and they’d have worshipped her.

DWP don’t care if they’ve disabled me as a writer, in fact they’d probably be cock-a-hoop at their achievement. With that in mind, I started writing in the gift from my children.

Why sit and listen to no music, when there are so many albums on my shelves I could play? Why flick restlessly through TV channels, when I have stacks upon rows of films? Why stare blankly at a screen behind a writer’s block?

I have no money and little food, but I’m a writer. And even though that’s been suppressed by depression, when it’s all I have, I should cherish it. So I care less if I’m skint, so long as I’m impoverished as a writer, and not nothing. If I write something, anything, I feel a little better about myself.

Who was it that reminded me? No-one as such, but a thought lit up in my mind, which had no business being there as I was feeling so depressed. It was like it was someone else’s voice. And the only person around here besides myself is my auntie Margaret.

Me Nan and Margaret

Happy birthday auntie x