“From Touching Rock Bottom to Touching the Nations” is, like Nick Park’s other books, available from Amazon both in paperback or in e-book format for the Kindle.
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At every opportunity I had been drinking heavily. The escape and oblivion that came from alcohol was something that I increasingly craved. The time when I was sober was spent looking forward to my next drink. The only problem, as I saw it, was that money was short, thus limiting my drinking. So I found a much cheaper way of reaching oblivion. I began sniffing solvents.
Carbon tetrachloride is a common chemical used for stain removal or stripping polish and varnish from surfaces. I discovered that I could buy a bottle for less than a pound (that’s less than $2 US dollars), pour a few drops onto a cloth, and then place the cloth over my nose and mouth. One bottle could keep me intoxicated for an entire day. Solvent abuse is incredibly dangerous, each episode causes hallucinations that culminate in a juddering shock to the body that makes you feel as if your heart is bursting out of your chest. Sometimes I could hear my heart stop beating, and in my befuddled state I would wonder whether this was the time I would die or whether I would come back to full consciousness again.
For the next two or three months I spent most of my waking time either high on solvents or drunk. At fifteen years of age I was too young to claim welfare payments legally, so I did so under a false name. This was before the computer age, and I figured that by the time the welfare office could receive all the relevant paperwork from Belfast, I would have moved on to another district of London. So I used the name and date of birth of an older boy at school who had once bullied me. I don’t know if the term ‘identity theft’ had been coined in 1978, but that is what it was. In a grim act of revenge I used his name to collect welfare payments and build up a substantial criminal record of petty theft, public order offences, bad loans and unpaid fines.
Occasionally I would earn a few pounds working as a roadie for bands, carrying their equipment into venues and setting everything up. The band I was living with was never successful enough to pay roadies. Although musically challenged, they tried to gain notoriety by courting controversy. They were called ‘The Raped’ and released a record called ‘Pretty Paedophiles.’ Every now and again a letter would appear in the music press expressing disgust at them – but in fact these letters were written by their manager in an attempt to generate publicity. They weren’t even significant enough to cause genuine offence to anyone.
Eventually my craving for solvents and alcohol became so all-consuming that I had no money left for food or rent. My weight began to drop alarmingly, and I ended up being evicted from my room in the house at Hendon. I wandered the streets of London for a few days, sleeping at night in shop doorways. When the weather turned wet I would shelter during the daytime in public libraries.
Even though my life was sliding downhill on an ever accelerating track to destruction, there was still a stubborn irrational glimmer of hope within me that things could be better. My fascination with other countries continued to grow. I would read books in the library that introduced me to the great writers of other nations’ literature.
One day I felt as if I had touched rock bottom. In fact I still had further to fall, but this day still represented a new low for me. I sat on the pavement of Tottenham Court Road and begged for coins. I wasn’t seeking to get food, or even alcohol. I just wanted enough coins to buy a bottle of solvent so I could put a rag over my face and inhale some oblivion. As I sat begging, with a piece of card in front of me bearing some hastily scrawled lie of a sob-story, I was two-thirds of the way through reading a book that I had stolen from a library. A well-dressed man stopped in front of me with a kindly expression on his face. I looked up and tried to appear needy and pathetic.
“What’s that book you’re reading?” he asked. I showed him the book cover. It was ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He shook his head in amazement. “There probably aren’t even twenty young men your age in this entire city who have an interest in reading that kind of literature. Yet you’re begging on the street. Don’t you know that God could do so much more with your life?”
“I’m an atheist.” I replied, “There is no God.” For a moment I thought I had offended him, stopping him from giving to me. But he still dropped a few coins into the box in front of me. I remained begging on the pavement on Tottenham Court Road until I had finished my book, but I didn’t follow through with my plan to straight away buy a bottle of solvent. Instead I retraced my steps to the library from which I had stolen that book, and I put it back on its shelf alongside Dostoyevsky’s other novels.
Then I went to another shelf and pulled down a big illustrated atlas. I opened it up at a map of the world, and one-by-one I began to touch the outlines of the different countries. “One day,” I whispered to myself, “I’m going to touch the nations!”