On Wednesday mornings, I have been doing a creative writing course at the Palace Avenue Theatre in Paignton.
It is a lovely venue, where you are well looked after and it gave me the opportunity to meet some wonderful people, who share my passion for writing. One of the people I met was Graham Walker, who came across as a quiet unassuming chap, but behind this facade was an amazing story.
I met up with him to conduct an interview for Torbay Hospital Radio, so I could find out more about his life. He was born in Bristol into a non-functioning family, with a violent father and a mother, who could not cope. No life for a child and, by his own admission, he had a few issues growing up and at one time things got so bad he took to living in a tree house.
It was difficult for me to comprehend, as I had been brought up in a loving home, where, quite honestly, I was probably spoilt. No such luxury for Graham, foster homes, hostels and eventually the streets beckoned for him. Strangely, as he explained, it was this that freed him from the things that had held him back.
He has sold the Big Issue all over the Westcountry and most recently in Totnes. He sold the magazines to support himself, whilst sleeping on a bench or in a tent and, at the same time, he was raising tens of thousands of pounds for charitable organisations. He even helped when children from Chernobyl came to our area. All of that time, Graham was homeless.
Twenty years of being homeless has not dampened his spirit or his sense of humour and he feels that smiling has helped him survive. A beaming smile made it easier for people to accept him. He would sell the Big Issue with an anecdote of his own in every copy and he built up a regular clientele. His humour was reflected in the way he sold the homeless publication, he would often have a toy dog by his side, which he asked customers ‘not to feed as he was stuffed!’
In 2005, Graham wrote a book, ‘Unsettled’ with the help of a local printer, who paid the costs up front, allowing the amount to be repaid as the book was sold by Graham on the local streets. The book can still be found, but you would need to search for a second hand copy these days. Ironically, he said that at one stage in Newton Abbot he was selling the Big Issue outside of Waterstones, whilst inside they were selling his book.
Graham is now living in Paignton, in a house which still feels, at times, odd to him. He is now looking to slow down and that does not seem unreasonable. It has been a while since he has had to sell the Big issue but without it, he would not have been able to achieve what he has. That, and the trust put in him by customers and the people of the towns he visited. The people of Barnstaple even awarded him a Citizen of the Year award.
So, as he contemplates retirement, he is working on a crime novel and he hopes to have a collection of stories about his time on the streets available shortly. If you are quick, you may find him at the bottom end of High Street in Totnes, selling cards and mugs, he will be the smiley chap. Graham is a fascinating character with many a story to tell.
My interview with Graham is available as a podcast, just search for Torbay Hospital Radio at your usual podcast provider.
Have a good Christmas and New Year.
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