25 February 2009

OVER THE (HOUSING BENEFIT) HILL


We are sitting in the pub behind our beers and it's getting a little intense as he reaches the climax of his argument. "...and that is the whole point, see?" he says, his eyes flaming. I nod, even though I don't really see any point. I don't particularly want to interrupt his flow because if I do we'll both be back to where we started. It's just good to see his passion boil.


Later he says, "I'm just a sad old alcoholic, you know?" That I do know. The words sad and old are normally prefixed, in his mind anyway, onto whatever emotive description he happens to be using at the time. Now, at this moment, it's "alcoholic".


Now Norman is in somewhat of a quandary. He is the victim of his own failure. He is the victim of his own success. At the tender age of 40, he finds his life on a cusp. Currently he is living on his own, in a cramped, damp council flat on "Housing Benefit Hill". With his dog. And with his son. His whole life, he says, so far, has been motivated by two powerful drives. One, sex, has done him ok. But now as he gets older, he begins to question this most basic of motivating forces. He doesn't have relationships with women. He "has" them. He "falls in love" with them. He "falls in lust" with them. Then he's on to the next one. We used to joke that there were 3 types of men; those that think with their head; those that
think with their heart; and those that think with (points to groin area). "I'm defiantly a balls man", he'd say with a glint in his eye. "I'm a horny
old scrote."


Mary, one of the highly respected local matriarchs, who works all the hours Jah sends at the local sandwich bar, was recently the focus of Norman's lustful attention. He wrote her a love-letter, proclaiming his undying allegiance, his wish to live with her, and father her a son. Popping it through the cafes letter-box, on the spur of the moment, he sat and waited.


Now, Norman and I used to rendezvous at this particular sandwich bar, The Coffee and Guardian, every Friday morning for a coffee and a chat, so come Friday, and no Norman, I began to get a little worried. If anything he's a man of habitual behaviour and for him to break our appointment, caused me not a little concern.


After I'd waited for a respectable period, I began to make my way home, puzzled. I rang him and arranged another meeting. It was at this subsequent meeting it all came out. His embarrassment was overwhelming. Ten seconds after putting the letter through the door, he'd regretted it. Perhaps realizing the consequences of the waves of gossip it would create in our small sea-side town, he immediately plunged into a guilt-ridden depression.


"I'll never go in there again." And you know what? He hasn't. Mary put the letter on the cafes notice board so everyone could have a good giggle at Norman. Dirty old scrote. And every time he walks past, with his large German Shepherd always in permanent tow, he blushes and looks away.


His other, (more important?) drive, is to write. And this gets him into a lot more bother. Really important writing provides some sense of the relation between individual psychology and social change, of the scale of things in general. Norman communicates this. A talent. He has written all his life, but only had his first piece accepted at the tender age of 39. His persistence eventually paying off. Graduating on Housing Benefit Hill. His poverty his key to...what?


Eventually, a well known national/broadsheet, dressing to the left, accepted an article and offered him a regular column on their Saturday supplement. As you can imagine, he was over the moon. We all were. His life changed for ever. We did have a few beers that night. At the Labour Club.


Because his views were not conventionally structured, his idiosyncratic style (a mix of [a]cute observation, broad statement, concise conversational snatches, and witty political and personal subtexts) won him many admirers. Yet the trouble writing about people, from such a small town, especially writing about prominent characters' , is that everybody reads the articles. Even when he changes the name of the protagonist everyone knows who it is. Sometimes he misinterprets or misrepresents their personality, not out of malice but because that is how he genuinely sees them. Even though this is not depreciative, it still upsets people. And when people are upset about his writing, Norman gets upset. And when Norman gets upset, he gets embarrassed. It's the relationships he
really wants, that are out of his control, that bewilder him. Like Mary. Like his readers. How can they treat him like this when he opens his heart?

The honeymoon is over. The town is genuinely pleased it has its own "voice in the media" once a month. Norman, after the initial euphoria, is gradually developing his journalistic 'thick skin' (he has to) and consequently as his embarrassment diminishes weekly, his self-confidence grows.


The mental health of the people in his articles always remains positive. Despite having no money, being on HBH, living in crap, damp council flats, having loads of kids, no decent men around, depression and drugs rife, no-one to care, especially the authorities, people still found some hope; some reasons to be cheerful. Some motivation to be happy. Their life has some meaning and purpose. Is liveable. The articles tone is always of an insider looking out. Like Norman himself.


The fact that his success will be his ultimate failure has not overlooked him. In fact he's very uncomfortable with it. He can 'handle' getting 'loads of shit'. For now. He 'just wants to write' (he always insisted he was a writer, not a journalist).


Now, a Faber and Faber advance under his belt, people are uneasy. They are afraid of something. If I try to tell him that he's losing the towns trust, the people's trust, that they begin to see him as an intruder, spying on that most private of indignant suffering - poverty - and turning it into bread and butter, he turns round, shrugs, and before avoiding eye contact says "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah". He knows.Norman can probably call himself a fully fledged professional now rather than a writer.


And he's looking for a new flat. Away from Housing Benefit Hill.


**********
Norman writes;"I developed my crush on Mary while I was tripping. I'd taken 200 mushrooms, and spent the night talking to her. I don't know why, she just came into my head. I called her 'M'. The following morning I did the Tarot and got the Emperor and the Empress in conjunction. I thought it was a sign. Then later I met Rachel - that was the day I wrote that William Blake piece for Tangentopoli - and I told her about it. I was in a real state. Rachel suggested I write her a
letter. Later I had to write her another letter to apologise, and went round to her house. I felt I couldn't show my face in the sandwich bar, but she
told me not to be silly".


**********

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