Reg Mercer, Pensionable Age, Bangor

"My first day selling was frightening. I'd spent the last five years living in the woods."

About 20 years ago I went and lived in the woods. I had to because I didn’t have no money or anything. I spent the next five years being homeless. I started off in a tent but it got too cold so I built a shelter. All you’ve got to do is lean a few trees together, it weren’t really hard. I was begging in Bangor, but I also poached chickens and fish. Only for the belly, not for monetary gain. One day when I was begging, one of the lads selling The Big Issue at the time said, “Why don’t you give it a go?”.

My first day selling was frightening. I’d spent the last five years living in the woods and not talking to anybody so I was terrified. I’m not so quiet now. It was chatting to strangers and feeling exposed out on the street terrified me, but it turned out alright. I started reading the local papers so I had some small talk. It was good to stop begging because I didn’t like asking people for money. And you have to ask, you can’t just sit there. When I started selling the magazine I felt I was giving rather than asking, and that brought me out of myself. I’m the gobbiest seller in North Wales now. I’m known for my whistling.

Bangor’s not as busy as it used to be because it’s like most towns – it’s dying. It’s certainly sad to watch, it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. Some people blame the council, some blame governments. I’ve noticed a difference over the last five years more than anything. We’ve probably lost three-quarters of the shops. I think they should try putting disabled parking spaces in this open area in the middle of Bangor because no one hangs around there and it’s just dead space.

I’m kind of a retired hippy but I’m domesticated now. I got a place at the start of February, it’s a little cottage and I’ve really fallen on my feet. It’s kind of weird to have my own house, it’s so much responsibility. This is the first place in my life that I’ve rented off my own back. It feels like home and it’s amazing to close my own front door behind me. Originally I’m from Norfolk but I ain’t leaving Wales now. This is my retirement place. I love the space, the freedom.

I do a lot of walking. Sometimes I only walk for an hour, sometimes I walk for three hours. It’s for relaxation and exercise. You can’t get freedom like this anywhere else in the country. And Anglesey is the best little island in Britain. I can’t speak Welsh, I went to night classes but I couldn’t handle it. I can say ‘paned’ though, which is ‘tea’. It gets me by.

I’m a firm believer in karma. If you give out good vibes you get good ones back. And if you give out bad ones you’ll definitely get the bad ones. I wasn’t always this cheerful. But that’s the thing I like about The Big Issue – it’s brought me from quiet to gobby. I’ll keep doing it because it gets me out and about, and it gives me a bit of money. It also keeps me talking to people, and that’s important. You’ve got to talk to people otherwise you become a little shell. I do like helping the community. A group called Voice that helps youngsters is doing a play about homelessness and used parts of my story. It’s quite a buzz.