I did a few ‘festies’ back in my thirties - Glastonbury of course, The Elephant fair, Womad. They were good years in retrospect, although tough in some ways. During my twenties I’d given up on ever being anything whatsoever. I’d spent a bit of time on the street, sleeping rough, but I couldn’t hack it long term. Mostly I stayed out of trouble using the same techniques I’d used at school – basically by becoming invisible (not literally you understand, though anything seems possible here). But I wasn’t pushy enough – wouldn’t beg and I didn’t look hungry enough so I tended to miss out on the handouts a lot of the time. Too proud I suppose, but I also knew that if worst came to worst I could go home to mum and dad, which tends to take the edge off your survival skills.
Mind you, home wasn’t exactly the soft option. Guilt, disappointment – palpable. I couldn’t stick it for long, and what with Justine and the kids and Amelia, after the accident, well, I couldn’t burden them, so back to the street it was. And you can’t avoid trouble forever. You have to remember, although I didn’t have any readily identifiable mental illness, I wasn’t right. I was hopeless at looking after myself, got sick and ended up in the hospital with pneumonia more than once, and another time with internal bleeding from some arseholes down on West Street kicking me about. Difficult to be invisible when you’re lying face down outside a pub on a Saturday night.
I ended up on the psych ward for a while, but more because they didn’t know what else to do with me than because I was sick. “Personality disorder” was as close they got to a diagnosis. I understand this to mean “Person who gets excessively upset about things that I (doctor, police constable, social worker – delete as applicable) happen not to consider all that important.” The psychiatrist admitted as much at one point. One of them said I had an adult form of attention deficit disorder – too impulsive, too easily bored they said. Mum would have said that only boring people get bored. I suppose that’s one of those obviously stupid things people say that nobody ever questions. The other theory was that I was mildly autistic, or ‘Aspi’ to use the vernacular. That seems like another way of just saying you don’t fit in. Anyway, I certainly wasn’t short on imagination and empathy, which is supposedly a feature of that condition. If anything I had a bit too much. I picked up on every nuance, every look, every movement. People were too difficult, too complicated. It was all too much. I couldn’t cope.
So then I got put out into ‘the community’, so called, which was worse – out of the microwave into the waste disposal unit. At least there had been plenty of hot water in hospital and the people who attack you tend to be sedated, which makes them easier to dodge. There was supposed to be therapy but it never amounted to much. I wasn’t dangerous, addicted to anything or suicidal so that was it – I believe the clinical term is ‘Falling between two stools’ which is an interesting image come to think about it. I found something similar later talking to the various middle-class hippies at the festies. Seemed like they were all involved in some variety of counselling or other, usually fairly pricey. It seemed you could get help with pretty much anything – commitment phobia, executive stress, your bed facing the wrong way, whatever, as long as you could pay. If your problem was not being able to hold down a job you could go hang yourself.
Eventually mum and dad came and took me home again. I was malnourished and dehydrated from a stomach bug. I explain all this not out of self-pity but to remind myself what it was like and to rekindle my wonder at how I managed to get like that.
And it wasn’t all bad. Those were just the highlights. Mostly it was just routine – boring, hungry and cold, but actually I had some very good summers later on. I went down to the West Country and became a real hobo, sleeping in woods, living off the land, communing with nature as it were. I found a book in the public library called ‘Wild Food’ and became a proper hunter/gatherer.
Now you might assume that being homeless would be more tolerated in the city than in the countryside but you’d be wrong. As long as you look the part, don’t do anything obviously dangerous or weird, and stay out of the way when necessary (with the aforementioned talent for invisibility), you can manage surprisingly well. The real key is to keep yourself clean – get a shower when you can, wash your clothes. Campsites are useful. Stash your gear in a tree and wander in in your flip-flops and a towel with a toothbrush in your mouth. Nobody stops you. Plus I was always well spoken and polite. The wealthy always like that sort of thing. Keep your past conveniently vague and they’ll even assume you’re one of them, fallen on hard times. They’ll let you cut their grass and muck out the horses for a small fee. And they’ll tell you all sorts of things they wouldn’t tell the ordinary tradesman... Interesting.
So anyway I got a hike tent for my birthday that year and a little stove. I learned to fish and collect seafood at low tide. I did alright. Proper aquatic ape I was. Not so good in the winter though.
Later on things got even better because I fell in with a lot of hippies on the beach at Gorran Haven and I even managed to get off with a girl, which was a first. I suppose I looked the part – I was pretty fit by this time, clean, bronzed and muscular from all the swimming, long bleached ponytail, army surplus shorts, slightly dangerous look in the eye. Mind you I was a good deal less dodgy looking than many of them, and a lot handier about the place too. This came from my not being permanently wrecked. Quite often I was the most together person there (I was as surprised as anyone). So they took me with them to the Green Gathering and the Elephant Fair and I made myself useful, first on the site crew, then, when it was realized I wasn’t really that into drinking and smoking I worked in a café making curries and chai. I sold a lot of drawings too. And I had sex! Only times in my life that happened. Of course, having been involuntarily celibate for 30 years I took the whole thing far too seriously and got summarily, unceremoniously and comprehensively dumped, but it was nice while it lasted. I suspect I was actually too nice. I appeared a lot more dangerous than I actually was and it quickly became obvious once I’d been slept with that I was a bit silly about women.
A hippy chick at a festival once told me ‘You’re too good for this world’. It was late, she was stoned, but she didn’t want to have sex with me. She wanted to have sex with the other guy who definitely wasn’t too good for this world as I recall.
Of course I had to endure a lot of weird shit from new age types: reincarnation, auras, crystals, crop circles, you know the kind of thing, but then there’s this - where we are now. I wonder what they make of all this? I comfort myself by telling myself that at least I didn’t claim to understand the universe. They thought they did and they were just so fucking wrong! Ha ha!
That all went on for nearly ten years and then dad died and mum needed help. I moved back home feeling a lot more confident about myself, and, for the first time in my life, with plans, but really it was too late. Amelia was in hospital again and Justine had her hands full. Luckily mum had invested well and we were ok financially. I tried to work but, really, I just couldn’t. I can’t talk about the rest. Maybe another time. Suffice it to say, after mum died I continued to live in the old house. The mortgage was all paid up and the girls didn’t mind so I stayed on.
It was an enormous spooky old Victorian semi with about two thirds of an acre at the back including the ends of two gardens bought from the neighbours. It was heavily overgrown with brambles and nettles and had some huge old sycamores at the end. I got a dog, learned how to grow veggies and raise ducks and rabbits and I built a cabin down at the end out of salvaged timbers. It was a fantastic construction. It started out just being a big garden shed, but I had mains water installed and got hold of some Tilley lamps and a stove, and a big old steel bed and I ended up spending most of that summer down there. It had a somewhat musty, smoky, doggy ambiance, and there were spiders and mice galore but I just couldn’t bear being in the house any more, not on my own. On the other hand I couldn’t bring myself to sell up and leave. It’d been my home since I could remember. What could I do?
So I put more windows in the cabin so that I could look out across the garden from my table, and a sink and proper floorboards and insulation. I only went to the house to pick up the post and have a crap. I rented it out for a while but it was too much hassle, and then Justine lived in it for a time too, but in the end I just wanted to do my garden, sit in the doorway and watch the birds.
My plot was a paragon of organic husbandry, overflowing with colour, flavour and biodiversity. I was reusable, repairable and recyclable. I was ninety percent self-sufficient right up to the end. What little I couldn’t grow I ordered from the supermarket and they delivered to the house. I listened to radio 4. That was my main link with the outside world the last ten years or so – that and the public library. Justine visited sometimes to check I was ok, but she had to admit I was probably healthier and happier than most of the people she knew. We used to sit on the step, watching the sun go down over the railway embankment drinking sloe gin.
I miss her so much, both of them. Poor Amelia. I’d love to see her again.
Well, we’ll have to see won’t we.