Message in a Marmite* jar

THE WRITER’S LIFE

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As the middle generation of my living family, I’m the filling in the sandwich. Since my benefits were cut (my human rights taken away) by the government, my parents have helped with the humanitarian cause of visits to see my children. With my war on the Department of Work and Pensions looking to last at least another year, my days out with the kids are likely to become less frequent; and with dad’s health not improving (he has a Parkinson’s-related condition), getting all three generations together in one place will be a rare event.

I usually update the mothership with personal news during our weekly phone summit, and she relays highlights to dad, which of course he has trouble remembering. So I thought it might be quite nice if the sandwich filling wrote a letter to one slice of bread from the other; something for mum to read to dad, to keep the moment, and to read again when dad needs reminding of who everyone is and where they are.

Marmite2

THE MARMITE REPORT

I was out with the kids in London on Sunday. They said to say hello and back atcha with the love.

The day started well, when I got to my local rail station (West Malling) and the ticket office was closed. There were three other people there already who’d taken the seating area, so I stood like a hat stand at the ticket window. Eventually the curtain went up, and ever aware of people in the same space and their perception of me, I felt I should ask if I’d jumped the queue (if so I’d surrender the window, but I hadn’t). I was rewarded by a splendidly distinguished-looking headmistress of a lady, who simply smiled at me and said, “Well done.” Rather than increase my paranoia of being followed, studied, monitored and reported on, I felt a little self-satisfied with this approval.

The spirits continued to favour me when I thought to ask if I could buy the kids’ London Travelcards at the same time as my own ticket, gaining a 1/3 discount with my Network Railcard. Usually I buy the kids’ wheels tickets in London and they’re £5.60 each. It turns out, if the kids are travelling with me, I can buy their tickets on some grey market on the other side of that curtain behind the Perspex. I pointed out my lack of children as proof that they wouldn’t be travelling to London with me, just meeting me there. “No problem,” said the wizard, “Your ticket doesn’t say they’re travelling with you, only theirs do.” And that little bit of out-of-the-box thinking, that small piece of human logic, meant I got to ferry the kids around London for £2.50 each.

We went to Spoons for lunch, as it’s always nice to sit down with the next generation and have time to talk (I continued the value day out by not eating or drinking; I was there for conversation and decoration). Both are doing well at school and applying themselves in their respective areas of personal interest. One is taller than all of us, and the other is almost as tall as our shortest.

The eldest is enjoying media studies, especially journalism and screen-writing. He’s looking forward to some upcoming modules, including one where he has to watch science fiction films. Naturally this makes me happy. The littlest is quite the accomplished artist, and has a thirst for language. As well as the three European ones she’s learning already, she has a fascination with all things South Korean, so she’s thinking about learning their lingo as well. This also makes me proud, while I myself can just about hold a conversation in British Sign Language. Handy when standing in front of a mirror.

The littlest’s linguistic timing skills were demonstrated over lunch, when she unexpectedly emerged from one of her existential trances (she stops talking when she’s eating, and switches to deep thought mode): “You know what really pisses me off?” my 12-year-old daughter asked.

The kids’ mum and second dad are fairly liberal when it comes to personal expression, and neither of the young people use expletives for their own sakes, nor because they lack vocabulary; they use syntax appropriate to the prevailing environment, reserving their more colourful language for deserving causes, and often to great comic effect. Anyway, what was pissing the littlest off was lost in the moment and buried in the subsequent outpouring of thoughts from trance mode. At various moments, we were transported in retrospect to North Korea, Japan, and Trumpland.

Both kids have a keen interest in world politics, far greater than I did at their age. They’re much more aware than I was in their technological age. We talk about the planet, about science, the future, and inappropriate humour. I envy the choices they have in education now, but they question its validity when there might be no tomorrow with freedom of choice. I’ve apologised on behalf of preceding generations for everything we’ve lumped on them. But as our sans Les Deux Magots intellectual debate concluded, we all need to work together and bear no grudges for the past.

The younger’s hunger for all things Asia was fed by a visit to a new South Korean food market which has popped up on Tottenham Court Road, then we were off to a Manga exhibition at The British Museum. It was less extensive than I’d expected, but it added to our collective knowledge of art and culture.

Wandering around the West End and Soho, the elder demonstrated something I hadn’t previously been aware of: an encyclopaedic knowledge of cars. Several times he ran down the Top Trumps scores of the various supercars we saw (Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren…) and pointed out the many electric vehicles in central London (including police cars), while reeling off their stat sheets. I was impressed, and once again proud.

Like all days out with the kids, it finished with a heavy heart as all good things must end. I made it like that, but I can never stop being their dad. They’re a credit to their mum and other dad, which is why we enjoy such engaging, intelligent and witty conversation on the odd day out. What makes me most proud, is that both of the kids ask me questions, about life, the universe and everything, and they note my answers. They bear a great burden, but they don’t begrudge it. Our children, and their children’s children, can teach us a lot. I have a faith, not in some human construction of a false deity, but that the next generation will see their own grandchildren, in a world which we’ve repaired. We can never stop being parents.

They send their love (again), but still refuse to pose for anything other than school photos. I admire their freedom of choice, as I know how much I hated having my photo taken as a teenager. Now we have social media. 

Times change and people change, but we’re all in this together and grateful of the past, when we wrote letters and closed personal sentiment in an envelope.

Marmite leafMarmite on toast recipe on BBC Good Food

So there we all (and you) are. Just as my parents used to read bedtime stories to me, and me to my children, now I’m writing stories for mum to read to dad. An occasional budget travel and social culture dispatch, whenever the reporters are free to roam, The Marmite Report binds the sandwich.

*Other yeast extract products are available.

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Guardian angels, in the skin

THE WRITER’S LIFE

There’s much in my real life which I’d like to write about, but which for various reasons I can’t. There are stories developing which could end well or otherwise, and there are others with endings very much open. There are concerns for the health of at least one relative, and many other people’s situations I’m helping in. One story I can now tell, could have gone very badly, and it’s only just beginning.

Dark Angel

Like so many of the young people I’m still in touch with, I met Courtney when I was homeless. I met most of the others while I sat writing in McDonald’s, or later, when I’d established the squat (in an old commercial premises). An initial ‘No minors’ policy in my temporary hermit’s home quickly fell apart, when first one teenager found it and others inevitably followed. In time it became a peaceful anarchy of lost boys and young suffragettes.

My main fear was preconditioned perceptions. Although everyone at the squat was respectful of the neighbours, young girls visiting an older guy is bound to get the thought police thinking wrongly. So began on ongoing battle with the plastic police and defective detectives, who would jump to conclusions and assume that my conduct was inappropriate, despite never enquiring to find out. On any given day, I’d be camped out on a mattress somewhere, with sometimes half a dozen schoolgirls sitting with me. It would be wrong to envy me, for all I heard from those troubled young minds.

If those judges unfit for purpose had attended some sort of anti-kangaroo court, they might have learned the truth. They’d learn little though, as most of what was discussed was intensely private. Those young people (and they were mainly girls) mostly had complex backgrounds and many were without an older guardian, or frightened of the ones they had. To them, I might have been some radical, travelling, free-spirited writer, but most of all, I became an older wise friend they could talk to outside of their peer group.

For me, it was something to do. Those young people gave me purpose and helping them out with words of advice was rewarding. Some of them are doing some amazing things now (a forensic science student, a budding equestrian…) For the most part, they told some fascinating and tragic stories, and I was always touched that they’d chosen to confide in me. And there were never any drugs.

This was all known to the real police, as the squat was just up the road from the nick: I’d been on the wrong side of them (and stayed there) when I’d stolen some food, and they knew where I lived by then. Every so often, a couple of PCSOs (Laura and Mary) or local plain clothes officers (John and another) would pop in after school, just to see who was there, and if they were all okay (many of the youngsters were known to the law as well).

At six o’clock their mummies and daddies wouldn’t come to pick them up, but they’d disperse into the evening and whatever waited at home for them. I really feared for some.

Courtney was at the squat too, but I’d met her before, initially on my first night out with Mike Skinner (on the streets). Her and two friends got talking to me, as I sat on a bench with my life in three Sports Direct bags at my feet. I lied that I had somewhere to stay that night, but had a vague hope a friend at the other end of town might help me out. So I walked two miles to the other end of Tonbridge, with three 15-year-old girls carrying my bags. I asked them to wait while I called at my friend’s door. As I’d actually expected, he couldn’t help out. So I let the girls know I’d be safe for the night, and they returned to their respective homes. For some reason, I later got a slap from Courtney, when she found out I’d lied to her. Even though she was a third my age, she was a protector (she’d lived on the streets before).

Courtney was reassurance that it was possible to be more displaced in life than I was, as most days she’d appear beside me in McDonald’s, either bunking off college or avoiding home. Eventually, she moved into the squat for a while. At the time, she was 16. We let the local police know where she was (they knew her very well), and there was an almost audible sigh of relief from the police station. Now it would be much easier to find a serial absconder from home.

Aged 16, a person isn’t legally obliged to return to an address (certain conditions aside), especially if it’s the same address they’re running away from. The police themselves agreed, that with me in the squat, it was the safest place for Courtney.

In the four years since, we’ve remained close friends, I’ve met many of hers, and they’ve become friends too. We’re siblings, in all but blood (but there’s been blood). We’ve been through a lot ourselves, and together. Long after we left the squat, when Courtney returned first home, then to various shelters, she’d still abscond when life got the better of her, and I was always first port of call for the police (If she wasn’t with me, the network of youngsters from the squat would help us find her). I still would be, but she’s an adult now in the eyes of the law.

When a girl with a history of drug use, and a criminal record as long as her medical one (she has depression and PTSD, and she’s on the ADHD, Asperger’s and other mental health spectra) falls pregnant, interested parties and agencies are inevitable, and so it’s been for the past several months.

Come the day of the birth, I wasn’t there. I know the girl well, but there are parts of some people I never wish to see. I’m sure there were a few people who were surprised when the baby’s skin tone ruled me out of any paternal role, but I’d only remained close to my friend because the father hadn’t.

A Child Protection Order had already been placed on the unborn baby, which naturally stressed an already highly-strung mum-to-be. There was a chance the child would be taken away soon after the birth. Courtney, her mum and her grandmother were very aware of this, as three generations gathered to welcome a fourth, possibly for only a short while. Then, like a rhino quite literally charging through a hospital (bull in a china shop is too clichéd and polite), an uninvited interloper blundered in.

By all accounts (three that I’ve heard), this “friend” ate some food, asked the relatives to leave, and let the medical staff know she was the mum’s best friend and godmother to the baby. Then she went home and posted a self-congratulatory photo proclaiming her godmotherliness on Facebook, expecting I-don’t-know-what. Social awareness and responsibility are as far removed from reality as social media twists some lives.

Far from adulation, a general sense of shock pervaded, among those aware of the insensitivity of the selfish gesture. Everyone else seemed aware that Courtney only wanted to be with close family in a very tense (and possibly temporary) situation, and that anyone else could jeopardise the whole thing. She’d previously said she might need a friend, but quickly realised that none were more important than family, even if hers could only be gathered fleetingly. The gravity of the matter didn’t trump the importance of self in one person’s blind ignorance. Even in the absence of a specific instruction to respect privacy, everyone else got it. If ever the blindly bungling, misguided excuse were to read this, perhaps it might provide some spectacles with which to see the bigger prevailing picture, better late than never. 

This invader hadn’t been the only one competing for attention and accolades as the day of the birth arrived, and the roles of godparents had been brought up many times, mainly by those who wanted to occupy the titles. Courtney herself had more pressing matters to attend to (having the baby and keeping it), so she’d made vague indications to a few persistent friends that they’d discuss it at a later date, perhaps when she found out if she was allowed to actually keep her own child.

So the announcement on social media of the Mr Ben godmother was wholly inappropriate and insensitive, to many people, not least of all the girl who then lay in hospital wondering if she’d even see her own daughter grow up. Now she was looking at Cleo (the baby) in someone else’s arms, while that person looked very pleased with themselves grinning out of Facebook. When it was pointed out to the would-be anti-fairy godmother that her conduct was in fact quite crass (it was as close as you could get to mental kidnap), she responded in self-defence, with yet more disregard for anyone’s feelings outside her own malfunctioning ones. There was never an apology, just prolonged self-flagellation in public.

For my part, I’d explained to my little sis that a godparent isn’t just a badge to be worn by the highest bidder, any more than a Christening should be used for personal gain. Courtney’s about as religious as me, so she gets that a Christening would be a waste of the church’s time, and that of those attending, obliged to dress up for a public display of infant torture as it has water splashed over its head. She’ll have a baby shower instead. But more importantly, choose any godparents wisely.

The godparents would be the ones Courtney needed most, for possibly a very long time, and not just in fair weather or for photo opportunities. Single parenting is difficult in any circumstances, but a mum with so many mental health issues and past problems is going to need help and support. While all those clamouring for selfish attention and entitlement crawled over Facebook, myself and a young friend of Courtney’s (a student midwife) were talking to various agencies, eventually ensuring that she kept Cleo. I helped with the phone calls and emails which eventually got mum and baby a placement in a joint dependence centre. All of this was done quietly by myself and “Charlton” (she’s named after a west London football club, but I’m from Catford), with no premature self-congratulatory posts on Facebook. The key was a letter I wrote.

As someone who’s always been in conflict with authority, Courtney doesn’t trust officialdom. It was a tough job, getting her to see that the various agencies wanted to help her, but that they had both her and Cleo’s welfare at heart. Even though I know she’s a decent person, I also know she’s prone to the odd wobble. She’s slapped me in the face and kicked me in the shins, simply because she gets frustrated. She can’t do that to many people, so she normally runs away. I just wait for her to fall apart, then pick up the pieces.

She eventually realised why everyone seemed to be against her (the courts, social services etc.): all they had to go on was what they’d seen: probation reports, a criminal record, drug use… That was all they knew, because they didn’t know the person, just the pieces of paper. A court hearing was pending Cleo’s birth, and whether Courtney kept her baby would be down to what was presented in court. So I wrote a letter of defence, a personal reference to counterbalance the case against my sister.

There was a lot in the letter (six pages of personal testament) but my closing statement was that I believed (as a friend) that Courtney would change, as soon as she had a reason. She wasn’t one who felt things should be earned, but give a homeless alcoholic a home, and he will sort the rest out with support around him. I used myself as an example of how someone’s life can be balanced, if they’re given something to live for. For me, it was a permanent home. For Courtney, it would be a baby. It was also a massive risk of a friendship, but one I knew would prevail, whatever happened.

I’ve had confirmation since, that it was this letter which helped Courtney into the mother and baby unit where she is now, when it would have been far easier at the time (this was Christmas) to simply place the baby into care. She’s halfway through that placement now, she’s proved me right and she’s vindicated my letter’s content. With Charlton and myself still helping out, the next step is to get her back home from Essex (it was the only place available then) and re-integrated with her own area (Kent), where dangers from the past could upset the balance if there’s no support. A combination of what all three of us have done means she’ll have her liberty back sooner than anyone might have thought.

Charlton and me have both been interviewed by social services and we’ve been asked to become Courtney’s family unit, for all upcoming meetings and hearings with various agencies, then for her ongoing life (and support). We’re recognised by the county council as being appropriate to the roles, and we’ve been asked to write life plans with Courtney, thereby committing ourselves to a judge.

Courtney asked us to be godparents. Auntie Steve and Uncle Charlton will help to bring Cleo up, and we’ll help our friend, as we always have, quietly and with no sense of entitlement. We’re not religious. We didn’t want for it, we didn’t need it, ask for it, or assume it. We earned it, by being ourselves.

Now they’re together, Courtney decided to get a tattoo for Cleo (on herself, not on the baby). She had a few stock quotes and poems in mind, but she thought something original would be more appropriate. So she asked a writer she knows to come up with something that had much personal sentiment besides the context of the words themselves.

The greatest love
grows inside
The strongest bond
my eternal pride

Cleo-Rose 18.12.17

With thanks to Courtney, who allowed part of her story to be told. All agency and authority references available on request for appropriate parties.

A lonely journey, never alone

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Yesterday was my monthly visit to Milton Keynes to see my children, the last time before Christmas and two days before the eldest turns teen. Tomorrow, my son will be legally allowed to have social media accounts, and become a part of humanity’s existential crisis, recorded for future historians. Today could be his last day of relative innocence. Farewell son, see you around…

Lonely Journey

I wrote recently of a girl I’d created in a short story, who’d found herself helping many others, while also having issues of her own. She was frustrated, because while she worked tirelessly and quietly with no recognition, others sought to claim credit for her actions. In that story, she doesn’t find a way out, but one finds her, as everything links up at the end. Sometimes, it can simply be someone walking into a life.

There’s a story out tomorrow, which will only be on this blog and then adapted for The Unfinished Literary Agency, my forthcoming second anthology. It’s also about a girl, who’s looking for something her son once wrote, but which he largely forgot about. My own son wrote part of a story some time ago, then gave it to me and we planned to finish it together. The life of the pre-teen has many distractions, just as his teenage years will, so the story was forgotten. But the original purpose of The Unfinished Literary Agency was to write the stories of others, which they themselves couldn’t. So it seemed fitting that I should finish the story, in which a mother looks for something her son started, to find out what became of it.

If my own mum were to look for things I’d written, she’d be somewhat spoiled for choice. Unlike a lot of the family history I’m writing for my other book, my stories are already out there. And in a family link-up, it was my own son who pointed something out to me yesterday.

The odd vanity search aside, I rarely search for myself online (inside, all the time, but not online). When I do, it’s just to see what people are searching for, besides the obvious (the search terms are varied: LGBTQI, animal sentience, steam punk, psychological writing, atheism, the human condition…). I don’t bother with outdated ‘Search Engine Optimisation’, nor any AdWords, preferring the natural order of Google to take care of things.

I didn’t need to be writing for long, before a simple search for my name (omitting the writer bit) more or less filled Google’s first page of results, simply because of all those who share my name, I’m the most prolific (I do write a lot). In any case, I’m usually logged on to my own Google account, so I see a slightly different screen to the public offering. So I was pleasantly surprised when my eldest pointed this out:

Google Box Screenshot

Apparently, Google has given me a box. Google thinks that anyone searching for my name will most likely be looking for me, so they’ve given me a box, which says I’m an author. I rarely call myself that (I prefer ‘Writer’), but if that’s what Google says, I’m pleased I’ve been given a box. So that was nice.

Whatever my children end up as, they’ve been encouraged to be the best that they can, at that which they enjoy the most, and which gives the most back. They’ll have many shepherds through their years and they’ll guide and inspire others, sometimes without knowing it, in their real and online worlds.

Like the girl in my story, I haven’t found a way, but one found me. It was other people, and in life just as on Google. Sometimes, you realise they were always there. Sometimes, you remember:

“Let’s run!”
“Why?”
“Because one day we won’t be able to.”

Farewell boy, see you around young man.