Any Spare Change?

'We're all in this together?'

‘We’re all in this together?’

There’s nothing quite like a Tory gaffe to brighten a Monday morning is there? And thankfully they appear to have become a weekly occurrence since the Coalition government took the helm – Thankfully! You gotta take the silver linings where you see them I guess.

In this week’s installment, The Independent jumped on the back of MP Daniel Kawczynski who, it is reported, told a one legged drug addict in a wheelchair begging outside Parliament to ‘get a job’.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love watching the Conservatives backtracking, apologising and tripping over the feet lodged permanently in their mouths as much as the next person, but on this occasion, as much as it pains me to say it, I can kinda see his point.

Firstly, Kawczynski was not speaking with a silver spoon in his mouth when he told Mark McGuigan to get a job. Having grown up in Peckham with an outhouse and two alcoholic parents, he’s not unjustified in his admonishment of the beggar, knowing all too well how difficult it can be to dig yourself out of the poverty hole. McGuigan claimed to have felt intimidated and ‘very small’ by the ‘sanctimonious’ and aggressive tone Kawczynski used in offering to help him get back into work or onto a Government scheme that might improve his literacy and numeracy. He claimed that the MP towered over him, humiliating him by asking what he was doing to find a job. Granted, Kawczynski is an imposing 6ft8in and would make any upright being of average height feel small, never mind a one legged man in a wheelchair, but I would question whether McGuigan felt humiliated by the asking of the question ‘What are you doing to find a job?’ or by the answering of it.

I expect every city has its own throng of drunks, drug addicts and homeless who, through a series of unfortunate events, have been reduced to begging on the street. Having worked in a bar on Seel Street I am practically on first name terms with Liverpool’s band of drunks and junkies who trudge up and down from the Sisters of Mercy to Eurowines, picking up discarded fag ends and approaching any kind looking soul who might spare them a few coins to put towards a tinnie. I’ve watched it happen. A “‘scuse me mate…”, a huddle around a handful of coppers, and the quickening determination of the shuffle towards the offie. I’ve hounded the slurring drunks out of the toilets, scolded those who rip open the wall mounted cigarette bins to loot for fags, and been accosted outside the off licence for any spare change. Which comedian was it who joked that they refused to give money to beggars who will only spend it on drink and drugs even if that’s all they would spend it on themselves? It’s the source of a great deal of guilt for a lot of us, our blue plastic bag of bottles clinking past the open palms outside the off licence. We turn for the warmth of home where we’ll enjoy a glass of wine in front of the telly, pyjamas on and feet up, and we can’t spare a measly quid for this poor soul to procure something that might warm his bones when he lays them down in a doorway for the night.

Being young, employed in the services industry and indebted to the tune of one undergraduate degree, I am, naturally, skint. I struggle enough to pay my own rent, bills and bar tab without taking costly bad habits of others. There are many, many reasons why I don’t do heroin, cost being just one of them, so if I can’t afford to be a recreational drug user why should I fund anyone else’s addiction?

That’s not to say that they don’t have my sympathy. That anyone in the 21st century should find themselves on the streets is a disgrace. It isn’t a choice that anyone makes, it is a last resort for those with nowhere else to turn, and sadly it is often the gateway to a much darker, hopeless existence.

One of my earliest memories is of an Eastern European woman begging in Dublin city centre. My mum and I would pass her everyday as we walked to the bus, she cradled a small baby in her arms and was usually accompanied by at least one other grubby faced child. Older and more cynical, I now doubt whether all those children were hers, or if the money she received went towards feeding them, but regardless my mum spared her whatever change she could, even though we weren’t exactly living in the lap of luxury.

I have never seen a begging mother or grubby faced child on the streets of Liverpool, but there have been a few fresh faced boys, young and desperate, and most importantly, sober, who have pulled on my heartstrings. Over a year ago a middle aged woman carrying a shopping bag stopped me on my way to work asking for change for the bus, she’d left herself short after getting her shopping, it was all she had. I had replied that I had no change and walked away before I’d even thought through what she was asking. It was automatic, refuse and retreat from anyone on the street asking for money or offering to tell you about the plight of rhinos in Africa. I suffered a guilty conscience for the rest of the night. That poor woman probably ended up walking home in the cold to a cold, dingy council flat. I was ashamed of myself. A few weeks later the same woman stopped me again around the same time of day, in the same spot, again asking for spare change for the bus. This time she was drunk, and the shopping bag, I noticed, was clinking. I passed her by again. I’ve seen her a few times since in similar states of intoxication, appealing for spare change.

I am less ashamed of myself.

What a difference the drink makes.

But the drunks and the drug addicts do need change, perhaps more so than others. Had I the disposable income, I would gladly donate it to the Saint Vincent de Paul or Sisters of Mercy or any other charitable fund that helps the less fortunate in any way other than buying their next hit. These people have been let down by the government, whether in education, employment, benefits or health. Mark McGuigan, for example, considered himself unemployable because of poor literacy and numeracy, because of his disability, but it shouldn’t be the case. There are schemes in place to improve these skills, there is legislation to prevent prejudice against the disabled and there are rehabilitation programmes out there for people struggling with addiction – there are plenty of people there to help, the problem is you must first be willing to help yourself, and with addicts that is often the greatest challenge.

But as to Daniel Kawczynski, perhaps the first ever Tory to evoke my empathy, I will offer a defence. The media will attack him for being insensitive, superior and out of touch with the real world but I commend him for adopting a tough love attitude on those who need it most. Here is an MP actually offering help to someone in need, providing firsthand advice, a handson effort to change someone’s life for the better – isn’t that what we want from our MPs?

World Mental Health Day

Today is World Mental Health Awareness Day and over the past week or so it’s been practically impossible to avoid discussions about mental illness, isn’t that wonderful?

What with ASDA, Tesco and Amazon apologetically withdrawing ‘Mental Patient’ and ‘Psycho Ward Escapee’ Halloween costumes, Miley Cyrus and Sinead O’Connor partaking in a rather public tet-a-tet regarding the latter’s struggle with mental illness in the past, and The Scum newspaper weighing in with a typically disgusting headline designed to stigmatise and scaremonger, discussions of mental health have become centre-stage and front-page. And really it’s about time.

I’ve been reading and watching a lot about mental health recently, and today I made a pledge to ‘Rethink Mental Illness’ on Time to Change, a programme dedicated to challenging mental health stigma and discrimination.

Have you pledged?

Have you pledged?

In the past during discussions of mental health with friends, I have declared, quite ignorantly, that I just don’t understand, or believe, people who suffer from mental illness. I think what I meant, equally as ignorantly, is that I didn’t understand why people who suffer from mental illness don’t seek the help or support they need. What I actually meant, whether I realised it or not, is that I simply did not understand mental health at all.

Had I understood it, I would have known that people who suffer from mental illness, the 1 in 4 of us who do, face a real personal struggle to understand or acknowledge their own condition, never mind trying to explain it to anyone else. I might also have begun to understand that something that sounds as simple as seeking help can become a monstrous challenge when firstly, you consider the nature of depression and anxiety that some people suffer, secondly the stigma and discrimination they’re faced with when they do try to address their mental illness, and thirdly the lack of support structures in place to help those people who really need it.

While I am still continuing my self-education on the subject I am pleased to say that I have begun to Rethink Mental Illness and I implore everyone to do the same. 1 in 4 of us will suffer from mental illness, but we should all be taking care of our mental health.

Below are just a few of the articles and lectures which I consider essential reading/viewing on the matter.

1. Ruby Wax and Alastair Campbell in discussion for RSA.

2. Another Angry Woman on World Mental Health Day. 

3. Laurie Penny discusses The Scum’s Fear-mongering on The New Statesman.

 

 

Sure it’s great for the town…

Join the Library

Join the Library

Talk about coming full circle.

Last week the global spotlight sprang on my little hometown of Strabane when a photograph of this rather genius piece of graffiti began trending worldwide on Twitter, even reaching the attention of Academy Award winner Minnie Driver.

The original scrawl which decorated the side of this electricity sub-station in the Ballycolman read ‘Join the IRA’, not an uncommon sight in Strabane, but it achieved much greater media attention after a local man, naturally dubbed ‘Strabanksy’, altered the piece of graffiti to read ‘Join the Library’.

It was a strange but wonderful thing to see Strabane making headlines for reasons other than bomb scares, stabbings and shootings as it has done in recent months. For a place declared the eighth worst to live in the UK by Channel 4’s experts Kirstie and Phil in 2005, a town which once boasted some of the highest levels of unemployment in the industrial world, and whose only great claims to fame include semi-successful Eurovision stars and being the most bombed town outside of WWII, it’s quite nice to be put on the map for something a little more light-hearted, positive, even hopeful.

Locals have become almost immune to the paramilitary propaganda that cover the walls of the town, how refreshing to see a new message much more reflective of modern day efforts for a more peaceful, prosperous Northern Ireland.

The online responses to the photo spoke loud and clear ‘Books beat Balaclavas’, surely music to the ears of staff at the local library who admitted in a statement last week “We’ve never had a better advertisement”.

Strabane Library: “We’ve never had a better advertisement”

Strabane Library: “We’ve never had a better advertisement”

What a shame then, that Northern Ireland Electricity very efficiently repainted the wall of the sub-station, destroying the first masterpiece of our very own Strabanksy, stating that it is company policy to remove all graffiti from their buildings. With that in mind, I wonder how long it will take them to paint over the freshly scrawled ‘Join the IRA’ which reappeared this week.

What did I tell you, full circle.

Back to the dark ages...

Back to the dark ages…

However opportunist and illicit his actions, Strabanksy’s message on the sub-station wall is one to be celebrated. You should join the library and books do beat balaclavas, they prove much more useful when it comes to applying to college or university, or getting a job, or raising your children.

Strabane should be making a new kind of history for itself now that we’ve, hopefully, left the Troubles in the past.

Here’s hoping Strabanksy and others like him will continue to put our little town on the map for the right reasons.

10 Sure Fire ways to Piss Off the Bar Staff.

Do Not Feed the Animals.. Give them shots instead, they're very thirsty...

Do Not Feed the Animals.. Give them shots instead, they’re very thirsty…

Today marks the official end of the summer.

Today my summer break comes to an end, and rather than being a short-of-work freelance writer, I return to official status as full time Bar Wench at one of the city’s prime student bars.

Back to porridge, back to pulling pints, back to teaching eighteen year old freshers to remember their please and thank-yous… can’t wait…

Oddly enough, this is about the same time of year that I lose that carefree, happy-go-lucky summer feel and transform into a Ms Hyde beast who eats rude students for breakfast. There are a variety of triggers that set off the transformation and for some reason in a student bar it never takes long to set it off.

And I’m not alone – bartenders worldwide have the same ‘dos and don’ts’ for customers. Stick by the rules and it could save your life, or at least your night out, but if you do have some sick desire to be eaten alive by an angry bartender, here’s a surefire guide of how to piss off the bar staff:

  1. Be rude – you cannot fathom just how far a little please or thank-you will get you until you forget to use it, an order that doesn’t include the word ‘please’ becomes mysterious mute to the bartender, think of this as a game of Simon Says, if the magic word isn’t there, it doesn’t count. Don’t underestimate the power of a please or thank-you, they really are the magic words, the make the beer appear.

  2. Be vague – “wine” isn’t gonna cut it guys… be specific or you will be met with a spitfire of questions “Red/White/Rose?” “Merlot/Shiraz/Sauv Blanc/Pinot?” “Large/Small?” “Do you want fries with that?”. Similarly “Beer” is not a valid order unless you want it served in a shoe, specify pint, bottle, brand if you have a preference, it’s awfully helpful.

  3. Ask for a surprise – you will be punched in the face, surprised?

  4. Ask for a free pint – you will be given a pint of water, possibly over your head.

  5. Ask ‘What’s cheap?’ – how long is a piece of string? ‘Cheap’ is relative to what you drink or where you’re from, if you want to know how much a pint is, ask, we’ll happily tell you. And if it’s offers you’re after, this is a business in a competitive economic climate, chances are any offers will be advertised on/behind/above the bar, on posters/flyers/menus, on the tables/toilet doors/barmaid’s chest – open your eyes, pay attention, it’s the only time you will get away with looking at the barmaid’s chest (see #6)

  6. Sleeze – you are not being sexy, you are not flirting, you have no chance, just stop now. Every winning line you think you’ve got, we’ve heard it. Flirting is a wonderful compliment to the bar-staff, and often a great pick-me-up on a busy night, not to mention an excellent way to make an impression that will get you served faster or more efficiently in future (see #7) but there is a fine line between flirting and sleezing. A good rule of thumb is the drink/driver rule – if you consider yourself too drunk to get behind the wheel of a car, you are too drunk to make a pass at the bartender, don’t risk the car crash.

  7. Assume the bar staff will remember your name/face/”usual” – unless you’re an actual regular, have put long and pleasant hours conversing with the staff, propping up the bar and putting money in the till, and I’m talking years of dedication, don’t flatter yourself that the staff will adopt the same familiarity with you as you do with them. You don’t have a ‘usual’ until a bartender actually asks you if you’re having ‘the usual?’

  8. Assume that your contribution to the daily takings is the sole reason we are still in business – you do not drink as much as you think you do, and if you did, you wouldn’t be boasting about it. Do not make any great claims about your levels of alcohol consumption, we are not impressed, alcoholism is not glamourous.

  9. Assume the bartender has short term memory loss – most of us are quite capable of remembering up to a dozen drinks at a time, go on, test us. That is assuming you will actually order a round rather that ten of you coming to the bar to order a pint each,or worse still, gather orders for the round while you’re at the bar having the staff hovering around for an hour and half getting one measly drink at a time. It’s like the Cub Scouts say ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to have your drink spat in’.

  10. Get drunk – sounds counter productive I know, but knowing your limits is one of the easiest ways to gain the goodwill and respect of the bar staff, never mind being the secret to a successful night out. And if you don’t know your limits, trust that the bartender does, believe it or not we’ve got your best interests in mind… kind of. If we refuse to serve you it’s not a personal vendetta against you, we just don’t want to clean up your vomit or worse still your blood from our premises, we don’t want to hear you moaning the morning after the night before about how you ended up in a fight, got your phone/wallet/dignity lost or stolen. So behave yourself, it’s for your own good.

 

Oh actually, there’s one final thing…perhaps the golden rule.

 

  1. Sneak in your own drink – Bar staff will put up with a lot of shit, they can deal with the poor manners, the drunken antics, the spilt drinks and everything else that comes with the day job, but sneaking in your own drink is the big no-no. Would you turn up to a restaurant with a chippie dinner hidden in your bag? Would you expect to be handed a plate and cutlery by the waiting staff? Thought not, so don’t be surprised if you’re asked to leave and never return when we catch you with that quarter bottle in your purse. And if you do plan on chancing it, at least bring something nice so we can enjoy confiscating and drinking it at the end of the night. Thanks.

Macauley Culkin Syndrome

"Is that the good soup pot you're throwing up in??"

“Is that the good soup pot you’re throwing up in??”

We all loved ‘Home Alone’ as kids.

The gallant story of a brave young boy delivering moral justice and inflicting mindless, hilarious violence on a pair of good-for-nothing crooks, and it was Christmas! A winning formula!

It wasn’t all slapstick either, we learned some important life lessons from that film franchise – the true meaning of Christmas, a second sequel is practically always a bad idea, and something about not just assuming that your weird old neighbour is an axe murder. Serious stuff.

But there’s another important issue which ‘Home Alone’ raises in this Christmas Classic, one that I didn’t fully appreciate until recently, I call it the ‘Macauley Culkin Syndrome’.

You remember the scene, frustrated with the domestic chaos of visiting relatives, the stress of the festivities and ultimately tired of being undervalued as a member of a cohabiting family, little Kevin vents his displeasure, as I think we all have at some point in our lives, by jumping up and down in one spot and screaming from the top of his little lungs: “When I grow up, I’m living alone!”

It’s a sentiment I have repeated at similar volumes on a weekly basis since first moving into shared accommodation six years ago. Of course then I was in University Halls, and the biggest point of contention affecting domestic bliss was who had used all the milk/butter/toilet roll, or why there was a grown man dressed head to foot as a carrot kicking my bedroom door – silly, trivial little things that seem laughable in hindsight.

Since then I’ve gone through the full range of domestic discourse from noise complaints, bullying accusations and phoning the police to remove the throng of drunken teenagers running riot through the house on St Patrick’s Day.

All standard stuff from what I’ve gathered from friends. Everyone has had similar experiences.

It’s a tale as old as time.

You need to share the heavy burden of the rent, you’ve got a friend in need, you get on fine in a controlled environment such as work or college, it makes perfect sense to move in together!

That is, until you realise that this very dear friend is incapable of washing a cup, an avid fan of the Kardashians, or secretly a compulsive liar. Everyone has their faults I guess, but some are more unforgivable than others – lying about being terminally ill is the big no-no in my humble opinion. Oh and not paying your rent and bills for so long that the bailiffs come knocking, that’s also considered foul play in terms of cohabitation and friendship, and general human decency.

But it just goes to show, you never really know someone until you live them.

I certainly don’t claim to be perfect – I can be lazy, messy, moody in the mornings, loud, and guilty of letting the dishes pile up for a few days, but I do produce some excellent baked goods, so you know, silver linings.

And I’ve always considered myself fairly laid back when it comes to cohabiting grievances, I don’t sweat the small stuff, at least not to begin with. It’s only when the small stuff begins to prop up the mountains of fairly substantial stuff that I get irritated, or when the small stuff begins to grow a thick fur at the bottom of the fridge, or when the small stuff has a big, red FINAL NOTICE stamp printed on it. These are the things that lead you to jump up and down in the middle of the kitchen floor, screaming “I want to live alone”.

These are the things that lead to full screaming and kicking onset of Macauley Culkin Syndrome.

Little Kevin McAllister had it right, living alone is the way forward, it’s the dream!

I did it briefly for a few months while a flatmate was working abroad, and those quiet, peaceful, fairly naked months were some of the happiest of my renting life. Coming home to a mess all your own, knowing that there will be bread and milk and toilet roll when you get up in the morning, never having to put the toilet seat back down or dispose of someone else’s rotting carrots, never having to watch Geordie Shore or Match of the Day – absolute bliss!

It is a wonderful thing to rest assured that the rent and bills have been paid, to know that the oven and washing machine and telly remote will always be idle, awaiting only you, to know you won’t have to constantly chase a meffy housemate to pay her way or do his share, can you imagine it?

Independent living!

Because Macauley Culkin Syndrome isn’t necessarily triggered solely by bad housemates. Even wonderful housemates who hoover for sport, bring back treats from the shop and understand the need for respectful silence when Downton Abbey is on, even these heavenly beings will eventually lead you to that same, buckling spot of the kitchen floor where you perform the same old song and dance of frustration. It’s not anything that they’ve done wrong, it’s just their general presence, their necessary presence.

To live alone would be to live independently, self-sufficiently. To be a grown up with the privileges of walking around naked, should you see fit, of peeing with the bathroom door open, of leaving piles of dishes, clothes and unread newspapers wherever you choose, of never having to wonder how exactly to ask a friend if they plan on replacing the photoframe they broke or if they really need three different cartons of out-of-date milk in their fridge. Mama tells me there will be days like this… eventually.

So to all the cohabitors out there, I feel your pain as you feel mine, we’re all in the same shared boat, we all need to offer our live-in buddies the understanding and patience we often require ourselves, put the kettle on, call a truce and live peacefully … unless they’re a meff, in which case kick their messy ass out immediately.

I’m back in Liverpool and everything seems the same same… but different.

Just as beautiful of South East Asia... but a tad chillier.

Aughabrack, just as beautiful as South East Asia… but a tad chillier.

Yes I have returned from South East Asia, and yes I have been dying to use that little wordplay since I first left.

But don’t let the title fool you, I’m not in Liverpool, I’m staving off the post-travelling blues by travelling to the slightly less exotic destination of Aughabrack for some home comforts.

I did return to Liverpool, and reality, with a bump (quite literally) nearly one whole month ago and must confess since then I have been suffering with the dreaded post-holiday blues. Reality, the mess of a bedroom, lengthy To Do List, mountain of washing and financial ruin which I returned to, really did hit me with a bump, as waking early (thank you jet lag) feeling rejuvenated, invigorated and determined to start off on the right foot I decided to kick-start with a morning run.

And it all started so well, powering up Parliament Street I had a whirlwind of ideas in my head, all sorts of plans and good intention to put things back in order. Writing ideas were tripping over each other in a bid to grab my attention, I was suddenly full of confidence and determination to get back on the job hunt, and most importantly, I was intent not to dwell on the fact that I wasn’t spending my morning lying on a beach. Sadly, that all that power cut out halfway back down the other side of the Anglican Cathedral and that right foot that I was sure I’d gotten off on caught on a loose paving stone and turned me and all my good intentions upside down.

It was one of those slow motion falls, you know what’s going to happen, you can see it unfolding as though you were a third person detached from the actual movement, stifling a giggle. It’s only as the ground makes angry contact with your hands and knees that you remember this isn’t some comedy fall you’re watching from the comfort of the sofa, that’s you right there going crash bang wallop outside one the city’s biggest tourist attractions, right across the street from your place of work. Not so funny now is it?

Lying flat on my back, staring up at the clouds I decided to focus on the silver lining – at least it’s early, too early for tourists, at least it’s the summer, no LIPA students around to revel in my literal downfall, and at least my only witness was a very kind-hearted taxi driver who offered to drop me home for free.

I gratefully declined, and hobbled home with blood-soaked hands and knees to curl up on the sofa and feel sorry for myself.

My mind might have thought itself fighting fit, but my body obviously wasn’t ready to get off the sun lounger and go back to porridge. I was tired, severely sorry to be home, and criminally skint. Fuck good intentions, I’m going back to bed.

Take me back to the islands!

Take me back to the islands!

Of course the wallowing passed with just the right amount of comfort food, a few convalescence trips to the pub with dear friends, and a brave venture back into the ugly world of freelancing.

Just as I was getting back on track, the tracks were yet again ripped from under my feet with the very sudden upheaval of my living circumstances and another financial punch in the face. But that is a rant for another day (watch this space).

Thankfully, the jet lag wore off after about a week, the home comforts have done wonders for the post-holiday blues, and my knees have just about healed, though they’ve left some unsightly patches in my tan. With a dreaded return to porridge and working life this weekend, it’s about time I gave a second attempt at knuckling down, starting afresh and getting off on the right foot… with eyes peeled for any bumps in the road, and maybe I’ll invest in some knee pads.

Before...

Before…

and After

and After

 

A Correction.

A correction.

For writers, words are our daily bread.

We try and taste all new words that we come across, endeavour to maintain a balanced diet of verbs, adverbs, adjectives, nouns, pronouns, all mixed together in the pot, producing sentences and stories to tantalize the tongue. We consume books, magazines, newspapers, novels, poems, plays, anything we can get our hands on to satisfy our hunger for words and the knowledge that comes with them. We learn about new styles and tastes, explore recipes from throughout history and national flavours, we could simply not exist without words. Life would be bland, beige and unexciting.

As a creative writer and an aspiring journalist there is one word that stands at the forefront of everything I write, printed in bold, capital letters among all others in my repertoire, that word is TRUTH. Even in my most fictional offerings, the foundations are built with truth, an honest representation of some place or person or feeling. Throughout history writers have endeavoured to capture their world and the people in it with honesty, truth and integrity, I think of Dickens, Austen, Joyce. We know their worlds as clearly as our own.

I mention integrity because there is dishonesty in not telling the full story.

To recognise Father’s Day I wrote a brief, honest list of things which I had inherited from my father, lessons he has taught me over the years, but it was not our full story, not even a fraction of it. The truth of the matter is, and even now I only glimpse at that truth, is that the most important lessons my father has taught me have not been easy truths to accept. I have not made peace with them yet, as my father and I have not made peace with each other. He disapproves of my choices in life as much as I disapprove of his, that is perhaps the shortest telling of it. It has been a long time since I have wished him Happy Father’s day because ours is a tumultuous relationship, and truth means as much to him as it does to me, we cannot pretend and simply play happy families. We are each other’s catalyst, testing patience, breaking tempers, building character. The glimpse of my father’s influence on me which I tried to capture yesterday, did not do either of us justice. He will always be the most important and influential man in my life. He has made me who I am, the writer I hope to be, the shining example of everything I hope not to become. And someday I hope to be brave enough, at peace enough, to tell that story because I owe it to him as much as I owe it to myself. But not yet.

The most important stories we have to tell are always the most difficult to write.