‘This Damn Puppeteer’ – the story of Brian Charles Harding

Brian’s book is a work of art and philosophy a story of the after-effects of child abuse and the realities of life on the street. It touches all of us.

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I do think this is an extraordinary piece of work, and is of social significance, especially in our town. I think there is such beautiful writing here which is both ‘wretched’ and ‘beatific’. You don’t just catch the ugliness, you capture the humanity and subtlety of these experiences.

Richard Evans, Community Alcohol Team Projects (South East)

I would encourage every alcohol worker, alcohol user, and lay person who reads this book to reflect profoundly on their own beliefs, understanding and assumed knowledge of alcohol and its cause and effect. Although Brian is still drinking and his journey continues, we can all learn from his courage. This book is a poignant reminder that alcohol misuse is not a carefree or fun choice, but a protector and defender for many individuals.

Fay Ritchie, RGN, RMN, Dip C. BA (Hons), Alcohol Liaison Nurse
Tom, Brian, and director John Dunne answer questions after the performance of Brian’s story at the White Rock Hotel, Hastings 2010

The Following is a review by Kay Green of the book and the play, written after ‘Down Bottle Alley’ was performed at ‘Books Born in Hastings’ in 2008. It was Kay’s meeting Tom, Brian and John Dunne on that day which led to Circaidy Gregory publishing the play…

Do you ever get curious about those guys who spend their lives sitting on benches in parks, shopping centres or places like bottle alley? Call them down-and-outs, drunks, vagrants, whatever but have you ever wondered how they got that way, or what they think about all day? Don’t tell me you know because you’ve read the accounts of someone like George Orwell. His was a voluntary stepping out and when he wanted to, he could step right back in again. It’s not the same as having nowhere to run to and no reason to run. Brian C Harding writes…

… people en masse remind me of ants…

Well, that’s a familiar enough analogy but look how it goes on…

You see, if you study ants going about their daily business, they all seem to be scurrying about, they walk so fast and purposefully it’s as if they’re on some kind of mission. That is, until they come to an obstacle. Now, they don’t seem to even try to negotiate this obstacle. They don’t try to climb it or go round it. They just simply change course and carry on walking in a completely different direction.

Are you a victim of chronic alcoholism? If you are not, and you think you understand alcohol anyway, well let me tell you – I thought I did too. There are alcoholics in my family history, I was the lover of one once. My memory bears the bruises and the prizes. But recently, I have suddenly learned that there is a whole lot more to the beast than I realised. I also learned a lot about the habits, addictions and coping strategies we all fall prey to, and I learned quite a lot about me and the other me who sits in my head and argues with me, the one that, when I was younger, used to tell me the ‘dangerous’ things in life were cool. Brian writes…

Tony and me were always at it like cat and dog. Neither of us had had much of an education. we’d made it to secondary modern, but didn’t get anywhere near taking exams. But when we were pissed, we were not only Einstein, we were Socrates, Byron, and that bloke Wilde who got banged up in Reading Gaol for being a poof. We were everything. We laughed and joked, but what we didn’t realise was how empty the day really was. We were just bullshitting our way through each day. Getting through the endless hours.

I discovered Brian’s book at our recent book festival in Hastings, where we were fortunate enough to be visited by the London Irish Theatre group who performed DOWN BOTTLE ALLEY, a play by Tom O’Brien, directed by John Dunne, based on the book ‘My Wretched Alcoholism: This damned Puppeteer’ by Brian Charles Harding. They bill this half-hour performance as ‘An important piece of issue theatre about the dangers of street drinking, focusing on the story of Brian who started drinking as a young man to only later become a street drinker with chronic alcohol problems.’

‘Down Bottle Alley’, the stage version of Brian’s Book, premiered at the White Rock Theatre in Hastings and was presented in Camden, and later at the Jenny Lind in Hastings, by the London Irish Theatre

That’s a lot of information and, if you’ve never heard of any of those people, it may not sound very exciting but it was a tremendous event to witness, not least because the guy who started it all, Brian Harding, sat in the audience looking like a cleaned up version of the ‘down and outs’ Hastings people are well used to seeing down Bottle Alley. Yes, the place really exists. It’s an Art-Deco tunnel sort of creation built on St Leonards seafront for… for… well, I don’t know what it was designed for but its name, as it turns out, is perfect for the two things it came to be used for. And that is where Brian Harding spent his time, in the company of other ex-merchant seamen and other non-drawingroom types, most of whom, in one way or another, arrived there after following a long road that started with child abuse.

There’s stuff in this book I’m not going to repeat on an open web page, but it’s there for a reason. I am so glad Brian found such an excellent project as this book to work on and I hope it lifts him to a safe place. It is a remarkable piece of work. A very smart-looking book with a portrait of the weather-beaten, wizened Brian in a startling white shirt on the front (and a bird. Why the bird? I missed that. It looks magic) and a boy wearing clown make-up, minus the usual smile, on the back. The book is the story of Brian’s life. It rambles back and forth through the years, stopping from time to time to go back for something forgotten, often repeating those key scenes that just won’t go away. Do-it-yourself psychoanalysis perhaps? It is elegant, clever and loving, and sounds so much like a beery conversation at the fag-end of a long day – maybe also like the circuitous talks of an afflicted soul with a counsellor but it’s also poetry, and learning.

Have you ever wished you could go back and advise your younger self? Would it work? Could you bear to listen to your older self? Here, in a scene from the play, are the two Brians – the older and the younger – played by Mike Aherne and James Lawne

The book, and the play it inspired, paint a tremendously moving picture of the after-effects of child abuse, of the realities of life on the street, and of the strange ways the human mind deals with outrageous life experiences – in short, it touches all of us. You know those moments when you suddenly realise you aren’t just nodding and agreeing, but learning, changing? There were dozens of them in the play and dozens more spine-shivering versions of them in the book.

The key was in Brian’s description of the ants and in his much-repeated statement that he couldn’t be normal because he had no concept of what normal was: that as a child, he had been unaware that he was ‘an abused child’; that as he grew up, it took a long time to find out which of his terrifying early experiences were abnormal, and a lot of his adult life trying to find out what was normal – and other than experiencing it yourself, reading the book is probably the only way to really know how difficult a task that was, for a man who was thoroughly steeped in alcoholism by the time he was a teenager.

What I was learning was a new angle on what I discovered when I took an Open University course in Mental Health and Distress a few years back. That is that most of the crime, vagrancy, prostitution, alcohol and drug abuse – all the things we wish weren’t happening in fact, are passed down in families filled with drugs, alcohol and psychotic child abuse. No point in blaming the abuser, no point in having magistrates pour stern words or harsh sentences on the perpetrators of the crimes… but if only we could find a way to break the chain that passes the misery from generation to generation. Maybe it’s like the impossible cry of ‘let’s save the world from global warming!’ – Maybe no one person can do it all, maybe outsiders can’t help much – but a little empathy and understanding is always useful, and Brian writing this book, and the guys who picked up the book, recognised Brian’s situation and made a play of it – maybe they are breaking some of those chains.

Tim Skelton and James Lawne in the play’s 2008 debut at White Rock Theatre, Hastings courtesy of Croft Productions.
Tom, with actors Philip Robins and Andrew Doherty, take a bow after the performance at the Camden Irish Centre book launch….

This, in case the details escaped you while I was reminiscing, has been a review of This Damn Puppeteer by Brian Charles Harding…

Buy online from Bookshop.org

…and the stage version of Brian’s story, Down Bottle Alley by Tom O’Brien

Email us (use the contact form here) if you want to buy a bound copy of the play script, with photos and info.
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