How Diagnosis Murder Saved my Life

In September 2001 I moved to Brighton with two of my friends. I knew nobody else in the city, had no job lined up, no particular savings, and no real idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I was recently graduated, and the only things I could be sure of were that I didn’t want to continue studying and that I had no desire to get a proper job. I had vague ideas about forming a band or writing a book but in truth I lacked the dedication to bring any ideas to fruition. My notebook from that time is filled with first pages of stories that were never finished, and although, with one of my flat mates, I did manage to write some songs, we never played them live, let alone recorded them.


Four days before I was due to move to Brighton, I sat on my parent’s sofa and watched the twin towers come crashing down. It was obvious watching that the world was about to get crazier, that this tragedy would be the start of more death, more bombs, another war. I vaguely wondered how this would affect my chances of getting a menial job to pay the bills, but pushed it to the back of my mind.


Things started to go wrong pretty much as soon as I moved in. We had taken an unfurnished flat as this was cheaper than a furnished one. However, none of us had much furniture, or any money to buy some. I had rescued a foldaway bed that my parents were about to throw out. After a couple of hours of sleeping on it however, it became clear that I may as well be sleeping on the floor for all the protection it offered.


The heating was meter operated. None of us had any money to put in it and so we were freezing all the time. In the evenings we would sit around on small garden chairs we had rescued from a nearby skip, wearing as many clothes as we could physically fit. I soon took to going to bed fully dressed and wearing my coat and beanie hat. As I lay on my useless mattress, swaddled in layers of clothes, I watched my breath move in the air in front of me and desperately hoped that tomorrow would be better.


Tomorrow was never better. Our landlord had neglected to plumb the washing machine in, so the first time we tried to wash our clothes we flooded the kitchen. As we cleaned the mess up, a furious knocking at the door startled us. It was the man who lived in the flat below us. The water from our washing machine was dripping down, through his bedroom ceiling. I remember him stood there, tall, wild dark hair, dishevelled, red eyed, calling us wankers. We joked afterwards that we had probably disturbed an axe murderer. It was a way of making light of the situation, but part of me took it seriously. Why wouldn’t we be murdered here?


My early confidence about getting a job quickly started to unravel. I applied for lots of jobs, all of which I was perfectly qualified for and heard nothing back. I got an interview at HMV. This, I was sure, would be the answer to my problems. Not only would I have a small amount of money, I would also get a discount on CDs and maybe make some friends in the city. Part of the reason we had moved to Brighton was because of its reputation as a bohemian, arty city with lots going on. Not knowing anybody meant that if there was a cool party scene we were not able to find it. My interview went well, and I walked back to the flat feeling confident that I would get the job – and that my real life in Brighton was about to begin. Two days letter I got an automated email saying that my application was unsuccessful. A few days after receiving the rejection email I was sat in a pub in the city centre when a small group of people walked in wearing HMV uniforms. I looked at my would be colleagues, would be friends and eavesdropped their conversation. There had been over 200 applicants for the job I had been interviewed for – and only two positions. For a brief while I felt better about my failure to get the job, but then I started to think. If there were that many applicants for the job – how was I ever going to get a job in this city against all this competition? It was still early but I finished up my drink and walked back home, in the opposite flow to dozens of people who were just heading into town to start their night out.


Sitting here now, fifteen years later, writing this whilst bored out of my skull as I manage the stand at London Book Fair for the small publisher I work for; it is easy to laugh at these memories. At the time though, there was nothing funny about it.


One of my flatmates, Stuart, had a job when we moved into the flat. Somehow he had got himself a job as a guidance counsellor in a sixth form near Croydon. I wasn’t jealous of the job, but I was jealous of the fact that he had some money to buy non-value range goods from Tesco, and also, the fact that his days had a purpose, even if it was not one that he enjoyed.


For myself and my other flatmate, Olly, our days were formless, long and depressing. We were time rich but we couldn’t afford to do anything and we didn’t know anybody else in the area who could entertain us. I became so desperate to talk to other people that I started to stop in the street when people asked me if I had considered letting Jesus into my life and talking to them at such length that they became keen to get rid of me. For a while we pretended that all this free time was a bonus – that it would mean that we were able to create our masterpiece. For a very short period we worked hard, writing songs, drafting and re-drafting lyrics, and working on a back story to throw to NME journalists when we got signed. Soon though, we drifted into apathy. In the morning we would walk into Brighton, visit the job centre, and look around the town to see if there were any jobs being advertised in shop windows. This done, we would trudge back to our flat. If the trip into town had been particularly futile and depressing I would buy bottles of white lightning on the way back home. Once back in our freezing, almost empty flat I would drink them, quickly, my complaining getting more bellicose and self-righteous as I worked my way through the bottle, cursing at the posers and fakes that made up the entirety of the population of the city as far as I could see, not that any of them had spoken to me.


If our visit to town hadn’t been quite so spirit-sapping, than Olly and I would play lounge cricket with a sponge ball that had been a toy for his parents dog that he had accidentally brought with him and a rolled-up copy of Metal Hammer magazine. These games would sometimes go on for hours, as bizarre rules were invented, and we desperately tried to take our frustrations out by hitting the small, soft ball as hard as we could. Occasionally we would mix it up and play football instead, but it just wasn’t as satisfying as winding up to take a huge swing at the ball, even if we both missed more often than we hit.


What really stopped me going under however was discovering Diagnosis Murder, broadcast in the post-Neighbours slot on BBC1. In Diagnosis Murder Dick Van Dyke plays Mark Sloan, a doctor who is a special advisor to the police force. Dick’s real life son, Barry Van Dyke, plays Mark’s son in the programme. Barry’s character (Steve) is a police officer, who fundamentally is unable to solve a crime without his dad (and a couple of other Doctors) doing all the work for him.


Watching Diagnosis Murder was the only time I was genuinely happy when I lived in Brighton. I loved it. I loved the theme music; the shot in the opening credits where Dick Van Dyke pretends to play the clarinet; the convoluted crimes; Barry Van Dyke’s total reliance on his father; the way that Dick Van Dyke was able to waltz in at the last moment, contradict all the detectives working the case, present some paper thin evidence and that would be enough to get an arrest made. I’ve heard it said that great art can lift you out of the everyday … well, in my experience, so can shit daytime murder mystery programmes.


I became obsessed with Barry Van Dyke. It must be tough being the son of a famous father, difficult not to feel that you are always in their shadow. Not only did Barry Van Dyke have to deal with this in his actual life, he even had to deal with it in a fictional setting. Barry’s character could occasionally get to be the muscle in a situation, but he never, ever got to be the brains. At best, he trailed in his dad’s wake, at other times he tried to challenge his father, putting forward his own theories on who was guilty to a crime. He was inevitably proven to be hopelessly wrong. I used to sit and watch the show and imagine the bullying his character would get from the other police officers – or did they all get to bring a parent in to work to solve a murder as well?


No matter how low I got, no matter how deep my shame was from my behaviour the night before (did I really get so drunk that I fell into a man using crutches outside McDonald’s knocking him to the floor?); no matter how futile everything seemed as the rejection letters piled up, no matter how lonely I was, no matter how much I longed for a woman to just talk to me let alone touch me; no matter how close I felt to just walking out into the cold East Sussex sea with my coat weighed down with pebbles from the beach, I always had Diagnosis Murder to look forward to.


Since those months in Brighton I’ve had several periods in my life when I have felt helpless and useless, when my life has collapsed in ruins around me and I have been close to falling to pieces. I’ve never truly succumbed to those feelings though because I remember that once I sat in a deckchair in a lounge, wearing an overcoat, hat and gloves with my breath pushing out in the air before me, knowing that my rent cheque was going to bounce, waiting for Diagnosis Murder to start and feeling nothing but happiness. If I was capable of enjoying Diagnosis Murder it meant that I was capable of finding something else that I enjoyed just as much, and maybe today would be that day, or if not today, then it would probably be tomorrow and I wouldn’t want to miss that would I?