Neil Stout, M&Co, Tavistock, Devon

Neil has had a tough time in the last few years, but he's hoping to go travelling with his son and his guitar some time soon

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I started selling The Big Issue in Tavistock about five years ago and the people here are really nice, very kind and very supportive. That’s my only kind of hook in society at the moment, I’ve kind of been displaced from everything else. The only people who actually seem pleased to see me and want to support me are strangers in Tavistock, so I’ve stuck around.

I used to do all sorts – roofing, scaffolding, pretty much every type of construction – but I’m on the wrong side of 50 now so that’s not really good for me any more. I lost my licence to work in construction a few years ago and it was going to cost me too much to get it back. I was claiming jobseeker’s allowance after that and I got into arrears on my home of 15 years. They brought in the bedroom tax at the same time as I was out of work. I got a letter saying: ‘You’ve been evicted’. I had to take what was mine and the memories, the sacred stuff, and just got the hell out. What was more painful was it was my two kids’ childhood home. It just wasn’t fair.

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After that I went to look after my mum and stayed with her. She died in 2019, just before Covid, so I had to leave her property. The last three or four years have been a bit of a nightmare, really. I spent a year in the Bunkhouse at the Union Inn pub in Tavistock and I’ve just been kind of sofa surfing ever since. It’s a difficult lifestyle. You’ve not got any say in anything and you’re at the mercy of whoever’s environment you’re in. It changes your perceptions on things too. I’ve had it where someone offers you a shed as a place to stay, and you go there and it turns out it was a joke. They don’t understand how important that is. Anywhere like that is to be prized. I’m forever walking about with a bloody heavy rucksack with my world in it.

I like selling The Big Issue because I can pay my own way. I don’t have to claim benefits and it gets me away from the bureaucrats there. The other thing is the social side of it. When I lost my mum it was complete strangers who helped me through that difficult time. I like that I wasn’t sitting on a sofa feeling sorry for myself, I was actually out in society being a productive member. I like introducing people to one another and expanding the social community.

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Away from my pitch I like playing guitar. I’ve done a couple of open mic nights around Tavistock.  There’s a guy I call Fred the Fiddler, a left-handed fiddle player round here, who got me out of my chair and got me to join in and I enjoyed it. I’ve just learned Hurt by Johnny Cash but anything from Pink Floyd to Oasis, if I like a song I try and learn it. I’m not at impresario level but I enjoy the music and that sense of accomplishment from remembering the words and not making it sound too bad. It’s nice when you can sing a song and everyone joins in and has a good time.

In the future I’m hoping society will get back to some degree of normality but I don’t think it ever will. I’d like to go travelling with my son too. He’s 19 now so he probably won’t like to go travelling with an old bloke but that’s what I was thinking before Covid. I’d be happy to just go off and enjoy myself somewhere. Maybe go around Spain with my guitar and annoy everybody.

Interview: Liam Geraghty

M&Co, Brook Street, Tavistock, UK