Sunday 26 March 2017

I'm a celeb gardener... get me off the dole!

Most offers to appear in reality TV shows leave Diarmuid Gavin unmoved -- but when he was asked to join the ranks of the unemployed, the leftie liberal garden designer jumped at the chance. And the experience was an eye-opener

Diarmuid Gavin

SUNDAY morning. I gingerly lift a pair of heavy-duty hiking boots which arrived a week ago from London with the instructions that I immediately put them on, get used to them. A sense of foreboding begins to dawn.

This evening I begin an Arctic adventure in Norway, one of extreme discomfort camping out on ice on a 2,000-kilometre trek to the fabled 71 degrees north. That's the latest TV reality show I've gotten myself mixed up in -- but it's not what I want to tell you about today.

I'm 45 years old. I design gardens for a living. All my dreams have come true. And every so often the BlackBerry buzzes with a new challenge. Would you like to learn to dance? Could you write a chilling murder mystery? Would you cook for four celebrities? Have you ever ridden a horse?

Television now is a schedule full of challenges, taking people familiar to the audience and getting them to do something different.

Some challenges are glamorous, others are an endurance. The pay is usually very good -- very, very good -- which affects your judgements. The fee recently offered on ITV's Mr and Mrs was enormous, but wild horses wouldn't drag us in. And when I was asked to go into the jungle I didn't bat an eyelid before saying no. (Mind you, everyone in the jungle seems to have so much fun, if they ask again there may be temptation...) It is intriguing to hand your life over, be taken away from your reality and have a holiday with adventure.

The following story began late last autumn. My agent got a call: would I like to do a programme on unemployment for the BBC? I'm a leftie liberal, interested in social issues and involved in a few charities for the disadvantaged. I've been unemployed for a period, and it had affected me. I jumped at the chance.

A meeting was set up with the producers. I'd spent the previous summer in LA and missed Famous, Rich and Homeless where four privileged well known people lived on the streets undercover. I wasn't told anything about this new version -- Famous, Rich and Jobless -- other than that it would be a challenging experience, made up of tasks requiring 10 clear days. I'd be given a new life, put in challenging situations and then examined to see if I could put that experience to good use.

The only preparation was going to a psychologist to see if I was in a healthy frame of mind and prepared for any difficulties that might arise. I was. So, weeks later, I was collected by a limo, dropped off in a warehouse somewhere in London and made to stand facing a wall.

Four of us lined up as if in front of a firing squad: posh totty Emma Parker Bowles, a resilient model type and niece of you-know-who; Meg Matthews, former wife of one of the Oasis boys; and Larry Lamb, an actor who has just been killed off in a whodunit in EastEnders.

I'd heard of Meg but not the others. Anyway, here we stood uncertain of our future. And then the drama: two experts in unemployment marched in -- a him and a her -- and stood before us with an air of military menace. They lectured us on unemployment and perceptions and their experience. They challenged ours.

They took away our luggage and gave us plastic bags of clothes, not stuff we would normally wear -- fleeces, hoodies, cheap trainers, woolly scarves, €5 jeans and nylon sweats. We were given time to change. They removed wallets, mobile phones, BlackBerrys. We were frisked for hidden contraband and handed envelopes containing £39 (€43) -- equivalent to what someone on benefits in the UK gets for four days. This was for everything.

We were told that we had to go out there, survive and understand how people lived. We should try to make money, see if there was any work available and form opinions. After five days we would be brought back to the warehouse before being sent away again, this time for something completely different. And then we were bundled into people carriers.

I was going to Hackney, east London, a journey of a half hour. But it was one of the most dangerous parts of Britain, and London's unemployment blackspot. The stats read to me were frightening, the unemployment rate huge.

Personal security was a huge issue. I was introduced to my minders -- for the duration of the programme, wherever I was, they would lurk in the shadows. Ex-SAS and French Foreign Legion, they didn't smile when I said hello.

I was handed an envelope with an address on it and a set of keys. With cameras rolling I walked up a street of small council flats. I stopped somebody in the street for directions and started chatting -- what did they work at? They were coy initially but after a couple of minutes they told me they were on benefits and everybody was on benefits. Everybody I was to meet, 95 per cent of them were black, would be on benefits.

"Was there any hope of finding work?" I asked. They were young, well dressed, healthy, funky looking. They shook their heads. "There's nothing going on around here, anybody who works around here leaves in the morning and travels way out. There are no jobs." They had been looking for jobs for years. With a wave they wished me luck.

I put the key in the door. Home was like a council flat you'd see on The Bill -- a very narrow hallway, a dishevelled bedroom and a living room where everything appeared to be upside down, a kitchen with an amazing smell. I'd never seen such a filthy place in my life. On a small sofa was a note. "Welcome to your new home. The flat is partly furnished so you will need to get your own mattress and essential house furniture."

I felt the £39 in my pocket.

"You will need to pay rent for your stay tomorrow -- this costs £6 which you pay at the Post Office. I've left you the light and gas key which will need paying for as well. This can be done at the local supermarket. You can buy all the supplies you need at the local stores. I don't really have any friends in the neighbourhood but just watch out for the gang of youths that hang out on the Southwold Road. I hope you enjoy your time here."

I was dumbfounded. I had moved into somebody's life. I couldn't believe they lived here. It was half past six. It had been a long day standing in the warehouse and I was tired. Suddenly the lights went out. No more electricity. I stood and I looked out through the dirty panes of glass.

The camera crew were there all the time. I told them I was going out looking for work. What about dinner, they asked? I told them I was not eating, I wasn't buying food.

I had £39 in my pocket; the following day I had to pay £6 for rent. I had been given a mobile phone, a pay-as- you-go with £5 on it. That was my life, my worth, my credit. Every penny was precious. If I was to eat, I was to earn the food. I wasn't going to endanger this person's flat.

I set off and walked. I'd walk a lot that week. There was no money for bus fares or the Underground. I was dreading this, but I'd have to start somewhere. The first shop I saw-- a fried-chicken takeaway -- I went in and asked.

"Any work?" A quick shake of the head. I went to the next shop, a convenience store.

"Do you have any jobs?"

No. Another five shops in a row. The pattern of trading places repeated. It was chicken takeaways, betting shops, off licences, barbers, hairdressers, some sewing places.

I didn't discriminate. I went into every one. Asian people seemed to run the convenience stores. I asked them, any jobs?

"No, nothing. Listen mate I can't pay my own tax. No jobs, no work. You'll get nothing around here, nothing."

I carried on until 8pm or 9pm, walking, talking, asking. I found a pub and went in. I asked the guy for a job. "Have you had any bar experience?" he asked. This was the first opening, the first hint of something. I thought back to my days as a lounge boy in The Yellow House in Rathfarnham.

"Not behind the bar," I said.

"Oh sorry mate."

I said I'd do anything. He looked at me.

"I might have some cleaning in a day or two."

I couldn't believe it.

"Are you serious about this?" he asked. I looked at him.

"I am a worker."

He nodded and wrote down his number. Sal was his name. I was elated.

Smiling away to myself as I ambled down the road, more shops, no luck. It was pushing 11pm. I wandered into a chip shop, bought a single and ate them silently crouched in the doorway. It was a long walk back home.

I'd been given a new quilt. I wrapped myself in it and slept on the floor. In the morning I was determined to be up and ready before the crew arrived. I didn't want them to see me going to bed or getting up. That made me vulnerable for some reason. So I got to the bathroom early and scrubbed a tile clean so I could lay down my toothbrush. In the cold water I washed my hair. I resolved to do this every day and then I left. A routine was what I needed.

I was up and out early on my first full day looking for a job. I walked back towards the main street. Three pounds in my pocket. If I didn't bring in money, I couldn't spend it. The rest was in the flat, under a cushion.

Into the first shop. No jobs. If I wanted to apply to head office, send a CV. Passing by a warehouse-type building I peered through iron gates and saw a skip. Success. The boss told me: "I'll try you out for a half an hour."

A crew had been working on a loft-type flat for months. Someone hadn't turned up. It might be useful to have an extra pair of hands to do some priming. It was amazing. I was in. My job was to clear cobwebs and to paint over faint cracks to get it ready for its final coat.

I couldn't believe it; the crew couldn't believe it. I had found a job on the road that I lived on.

Everyone expected to be pounding the street for a day and I had lucked out in an extraordinary way. Every Friday the boss bought lunch -- a delicious Thai takeaway. My £3 was safely in my pocket. On the site I saw a mattress about to be dumped in the skip.

"Can I have that?" I asked.

"No problem."

I walked home, mattress on my head, fed, and with £45 cash in my pocket.

One day fed into the next. I'd stay out until about 11pm, walk the streets, go to libraries, to a Baptist Church and during the day I'd go and look for work. And I got it every day. Sal had me back to the pub. I cleaned an upstairs room -- I did a good job, so he let me do another room. I worked into the night. He paid me cash and gave me a shirt, trainers and a can of beer.

The next day, I tried a hardware store and the man behind the desk rang his wife who needed some garden clearing. I arrived the following morning in the lashing rain and I stood on her porch a drowned rat and begged her.

"I really need the work; let me do the job." She did. My jeans were caked to me, mud ran down my face. I texted my wife at home: 'Please ring me but I'm not allowed to talk to you'. In Wicklow my little girl was celebrating her fifth birthday. I sang Happy Birthday down the phone and worked until it got pitch dark in that garden.

It was a week of single-minded determination, and, while a whole community around me was full of no hope, I had a background, an education and experience which had led me to believe that if you look hard enough there are answers.

I am also white and middle class and learned early on how to approach people: be clean, polite, good-natured and look people in the eye in a way that lets them know you mean business -- and maybe, just maybe, that you are desperate.

I had to separate myself from the idea of a television show. My quest that week couldn't have been more real. I'll never forget those days and what I learned was that I am able to provide and I don't need the things associated with perceived success. The comforts actually mean very little to me.

This was only the first part of the experience. I was shell-shocked. We regrouped and the experts told us we'd be going to different parts of the country. We would variously go to a single mum, an ex-convict and a young couple with five kids on long-term benefits. That was the only one I didn't want. Guess where I went?

I was told they were excited about the celebrity arriving, thinking it was Orlando Bloom -- until this middle-aged, slightly rotund gardener from Dublin stood in the doorway. They'd never heard of me but were wonderfully polite.

It was a madhouse. If you have ever seen Shameless, you will understand -- kids everywhere, Mum and Dad, his dad and friends in a rented red- brick property. There was a dog, the family pet, and nine of her puppies. And then a Rottweiler strolled out of the room I was to sleep in, having left a puddle in the middle of my bed. And at two in the morning nothing had changed. The one-and-half-year-old was beating up the six-year-old to the merriment of everyone.

There were no drugs, no drinks. Instead what I encountered was a loving family -- but one without rules. They were confused by my presence, but not as confused as I was. At 3am I went to bed. Next door the video games and the movies were running until the early hours.

It was utter mayhem. Ultimately though, out of the experience we would forge an enduring friendship that ended with me becoming godfather to their next baby.

'Famous, Rich and Jobless' is on BBC One this Tuesday and Wednesday at 9pm

Sunday Independent

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