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Big Issue Columns: "Common People"

Updated on October 30, 2018
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CJ Stone is an author and columnist, with seven books to his credit. He lives in Whitstable and currently writes for the Whitstable Gazette.

The following are a series of columns I wrote for The Big Issue, a magazine sold by homeless people, under the general title “Common People”. You may recognise some of the characters.

"Alien Insect Man"

Meet Steve. 6'2", balding, with a sort of Egyptian headdress of dreadlocks dangling round his ears. He's an alien.

He's not joking. He can't remember exactly when he arrived on this planet. All he knows is that he can't possibly be from Earth. It's too weird here.

He lives on a council estate on the outskirts of Cardiff, with his 18 year old son, 250 house plants, an array of arcane literature, several grim looking salamander-like creatures who live in a fish tank, red-bellied toads in sweetie jars, hissing cockroaches in bottles and stick-insects. He often feels he has more in common with the stick-insects than he does with human beings. At least the stick insects make sense.

It started when he was a child, this certainty that he must be from another planet. He'd always loved Nature, and spent many a happy hour wading round in rock pools, or wandering about the woods, observing the life there: the creepy crawlies, the insects and the lizards. And he kept creatures too, then as now. Caterpillars in jars, and field voles and shrews; and exotic things he'd get by mail order, like silk moths and insects. But Human beings just puzzled him.

He had a cousin, name of Paul. And Steve's Mom used to say could he show Paul his creatures? So he'd do that, just to keep the peace. But all Paul would do would be to torment the little creatures. Or Steve would show him a plant and Paul would break it. Or Steve would be wallowing round in a pond, catching newts, and there'd be other boys there, also catching newts. But whereas Steve wanted to keep the newts and breed them, the other boys would throw them on the grass and chuck penknives at them. And he'd catch insects to keep them, whereas the other boys would catch them to pull their legs off.

And that was the reason he'd always felt like an alien. All Earthlings seem to want to do is to destroy things.

Poor Steve. He's got it all wrong. We're the aliens really.

"Wild Thing"

Meet Big Ted and Louie, the world's worst tobacco smugglers. Big Ted is about 6 foot something or other and the same about the midriff. A genuine man-mountain. Louie is about 4'11", and wears milk-bottle bottom glasses. They call him "Double-Glazing" on account of the thickness of his glasses.

Big Ted has been in the smuggling game for years. He crosses over on the ferry once a week, returning with large quantities of continental tobacco, which he then sells around the pubs in his home town. There's a few like him in every town. Unfortunately, in the last few years he's begun to lose the use of his legs. Walks with a walking stick over short distances, but needs a wheel chair the rest of the time. Which kind militates against the smuggling business somewhat. So he got Louie in to help him. Which is when things started to go wrong.

Louie does the pushing. So you've got mountainous Big Ted in his wheel chair, and little Louie puffing away behind, eyes swimming like two jellyfish in a gold fish bowl. To say that they're an obvious pair is to understate the case. They stand out like two conked-out Morris Minors in a Grand Prix race.

Louie's got a croaky voice, a nervous disposition, and likes to do impressions of Reg Presley of the Troggs. Which is fine on Karaoke night. It's not so fine when he's pushing a man-mountain through the Nothing To Declare section of the customs building, in a wheel chair loaded up with illegal tobacco. "Wild Thing, you make my heart sing," echoing around the corridor.

"Shhhhh," says Big Ted, curtly.

And, of course, the obvious thing happened. All the customs men got to know them.

"Hello Ted, hello Louie," they say as Ted and Louie are embarking on the boat. And: "hello Ted, hello Louie, what's that you've got tucked away in your wheel chair?" they say, as Ted and Louie are passing through the customs hall on the way back.

These last two times they've been caught. Ted is thinking of taking early retirement.

"A Pint of Beer With a Head"

You've met Louie before, all 4'11" of him. He's the tobacco smuggler, the pusher. Meaning that he pushes Big Ted around in his wheel chair.

One day he was in Southend. He went into a pub and ordered a drink. Now Louie likes his pint filled to the top of the glass. No head. So when the barman handed him a pint with a quarter of an inch of head, Louie handed it back. "Can you fill it to the top please?" The barman tutted, but did as he was asked.

After Louie had finished that, he went for another. This time the barman gave him a pint with a half an inch of head. "This is taking the piss," said Louie: "can you fill it to the top please." The barman was obviously having trouble with the pumps because the more he pumped, the more head he got. "Right," he said, "I'm the owner of this place. You're barred!"

Louie shrugged his shoulders and headed off to another pub. But no sooner had he got through the door than the barman said: "you're barred."

"Barred? How can I be barred? I've never been in here in my life before."

"I've just had a phonecall from the owner," the barman told him.

"Oh well," thought Louie, and wandered on again. He thought he might as well visit a club this time. He was on holiday, after all. So he looked around for a club, and when he'd found one, went in. He went to the bar, eager for a drink, but, once more, the barman told him he was barred. "Don't tell me," said Louie, "you had a phone call from the owner. Does he own every bloody pub and club in this place? I just want to know where I can get a drink."

"He owns two pubs and one club," the barman told him, "and you've just walked into each one in succession."

"Oh well," thought Louie again, crestfallen, "at least I'm guaranteed a drink at the next pub." And he didn't care how much head that pint had on it.

"You're Unemployed Before You're Born"

Meet Griff. Well you can't actually. He's dead. But he was one of my favourite people when he was alive.

His full name was Griffith Own Roberts. A Welshman living in Kent. And everyone called him Taff, and he called everyone else Vic. "Hello Vic. How're y' doin' Vic?" he'd say. He could never remember anyone's name.

One day my sister came down to visit. Bless her. I introduced her to him as Taff. "What's your real name?" she asked. "Griffith," he said, sounding surprised. "Griffith Owen Roberts." After that I would use his real name too. "Hello Griff. How're y' doin'?" I'd say.

"Hello Chris," he'd say.

I was the only person he didn't call Vic.

He had a bicycle. He'd cycle all over Kent. He had at least a half a dozen girlfriends dotted about the county, cycling everywhere to see them. He lived in a house without electricity. No lights. He'd get up at dawn and dig his allotment. And then, when the light faded, he'd go home and live by the light of the streetlights outside. After that he'd go out for a drink. Same thing every night. Six bottles of strong ale, and then home.

When I knew him he was in his seventies. Compact. Bull-dog-build. With all his front teeth missing. And - despite a lifetime living in Kent - an incomprehensible Welsh accent. We used to hold gigs down the Club. Lots of people. Lots of noise. Lots of dancing. Lots of young people enjoying themselves. Lots of women. And Griff would chat them up. And - I suppose this is why I liked him so much, this ageing, balding, toothless Welshman with the incomprehensible accent - the young women would all respond. They would rub his back while he grinned at them toothlessly, making incomprehensible suggestions about what he'd like to do with them if only he was forty years younger. They'd laugh. He'd grin. Life would go on.

This was his greeting when you'd pass him on the street. "You're unemployed before you're born," he'd say.

Now what does that mean?

"To Heaven In A Handcart"

Meet Sally Forth. "Sally forth", as in, "venture onward, journey forward, step on out and see the world." I don't think it's her real name. She lives in a handcart.

It's a hand-made handcart, carved and painted like a gypsy caravan, with an arched roof swathed in tarpaulin, like one of those Wild West wagons by which the West was won. Wagon Train, but without the horses. Pushed rather than pulled. There's just enough room for a double bed.

She's been living like this for the last four years, wandering the country by the back-roads and bridleways, the green lanes, the ancient rights of way you can still discover on any OS map. The upper part of the handcart is her bed, while her kitchen dangles underneath: pots and pans and a wood-burning stove. Recently she's been joined by a few others she met at the Newbury by-pass protest. So there's a cavalcade of handcarts now, a convoy, an old-fashioned caravan. Three men, I think, and three women. The women push smaller carts with all the other things they need. The men push the beds.

I met them all under Glastonbury Tor at the Midsummer solstice last year. They'd travelled from Lyme Regis to Glastonbury over six days, only stopping to eat and sleep. They had the handcarts formed into a circle with a tarp connecting them, with a wood-burning stove belching out smoke and heat, while someone made chapatis for everyone. They shared their chapatis and a pot of fresh coffee with me. Then they were joined by someone from Essex with a bottle of Gin. Everyone got pissed, while Pixi (an old friend of mine, also living in a handcart) played the guitar. It was a lot of fun. They're hoping to get to Scotland for the Millennium.

You wonder why they do it. They reject work, and yet they work harder than all of us, just to stay alive.

"Earthbound Fragment"

Meet V. I'm not sure how to refer to the being, as a "he", a "she", or an "it". S/he's another one like Steve, an earlier subject, who believes s/he in an alien.

S/he is a boy in the morning, a girl in the afternoon, and a Kaiana in the evening. A Kaiana is a galactic deva. V is apparently an Earthbound fragment, no longer human, of a being called Aona, with whom s/he will merge at some future date, and emerge, like a caterpillar out of its chrysalis, as some entirely new species of creature altogether. Otherwise s/he is an artist, an author and a poet.

Steve has a painting by her/him on his wall, superbly executed. Very realistic. It is of an intergalactic female-type creature, blue with white hair, with scales instead of nipples. Otherwise she is very attractive, giving you this arch, sensual, come-to-bed look. Steve said, "if you look at her before you go to sleep, she will come to you in your dreams."

I kind-of hoped she would.

Well it's all very well taking the piss out of this New Age strangeness. I do it all the time. You imagine some spotty youth on a council estate with nothing better to do than to imagine themselves as some form of higher being. But I've read some of V's writing, and I have to admit that there's a compelling quality about it. It kind of makes sense, in a wild, loopy, intergalactic kind of way. It's full of references to extraterrestrials and intradimensionals and other weird and exciting-sounding creatures. Much more interesting than the FT index and the sort of stuff that goes on in my head. My world contains nothing more interesting than traffic cones and streetlamps.

But, you wonder, does the earth-bound fragment of the galactic deva Aona have to go shopping ever? What does it feel like, as an other-worldly being, to wait in the shopping queue with a basket full of groceries? Doesn't he/she/it long for the intergalactic spaces at times like this?

"That'll be £7.45 please dear. Do you have a Dividend Card?"

"Spaghetti Westerns"

You've met Big Ted before, the man-mountain tobacco smuggler who works with little Louie and keeps getting caught. I always get my tobacco from him. He sits in the pub on a Friday evening, selling it, and then complains because he has to walk to the car get it. He doesn't walk too well.

One day I asked him if he'd got any tobacco. No, he told me. Him and Louie had just been caught and had the whole lot confiscated. "I'm fed up with Louie," he said. "He keeps singing while we're going through customs." He was trying to find a new pusher, someone else to push his wheelchair for him. Well I almost volunteered, just for the crack, but then thought better about it.

But I was intrigued. Why did he do it? I mean, it's all right as an occupation, as long as you're relatively fit. "I'm buying a new computer," he told me. I was even more intrigued now.

"So what do you do with your computer, Ted?" I asked him.

"I'm cataloguing my video collection. I have 1,500 videos."

"What have you got?"

"You name it, I've got it," he said.

Well I named one or two films, which he didn't have, but then had a thought. "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly?" I suggested. I was right. He has the entire collection of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns.

"Trouble is, I can't work out how to catalogue them. If you catalogue them in alphabetical order you get a lot of films under "T" for "the", and "A" for "a". It doesn't work. So I'm putting them under the main star, Clint Eastwood or whatever."

"What about putting them under the Director's name," I suggested. "Like Sergio Leone for the Spaghetti Westerns?"

"No, I can't be bothered with that," he said. "I'm not interested in the Director."

Which was about the strangest thing I had ever heard. Tobacco smuggling in a wheelchair to buy a computer to catalogue Spaghetti Westerns, without using Sergio Leone's name. It's a crazy world.

"Miss Polly Pot"

Meet Miss Polly Pot, Fashion Director. Now who on Earth would want to claim a name like that? Think about it. She's the most dangerous woman on the planet.

She's about 4'11" of dark, pent-up, sexual energy, like a blackened blade just lifted from the anvil and thrust, scorching, into the hissing waters. She makes a wonderful friend, loyal and honest, but a deadly enemy. As a friend she allows you to say whatever is on your mind (in fact encourages it) bringing to the fore all those problematic areas of sex and sin we all share. As an enemy, she stores it all up for later use. You don't cross Miss Polly Pot. Not in her own, small town you don't.

She runs fashion shows. But not your ordinary, average, run-of-the-mill, off-the-peg fashion shows, where rich old women come to gawp at women much younger and prettier than themselves, and buy overpriced clothes in the hope that some of the sex-appeal might rub off on them. No. Miss Polly Pot's fashion shows are a revolutionary tool. She has declared Year One on the fashion industry. She is committing genocide on all the tired old clichés. Miss Polly Pot, like her infamous namesake in South East Asia, does not make compromises.

Firstly the clothes are cheap. They're adapted from Oxfam rejects and other second-hand bargains. Secondly, the models are not necessarily young, or pretty, or sexy in the conventional sense. But she makes them feel young. She makes them feel pretty. Most of all she makes them feel very, very sexy. The fashion-show routines are sex-show comedies, where powerful women, booted and strapped, strut imperiously; where men wear corsets and wedding dresses; where women are given the upper hand, and men are viewed as sex-objects.

Neither are the audience the usual fashion-show punters. Men and women of all ages and backgrounds gather to watch, literally screaming with excitement. What Polly Pot knows is that it is sexual energy which drives us all. And she knows how to unleash it. She makes sex dangerous again. Which is what it always was.

© 2009 Christopher James Stone


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