(A version of this piece was also published on the Indian news site WSN)
“I’ve never really understand why anyone wants to perform comedy,” I said to Scots comedian Del Strain yesterday.
“Because when I’m on stage,” he told me, “for them twenty or thirty minutes – when you’ve got the audience, for that piece of time, my legs ain’t sore, no matter what’s going on in the world, no matter what your financial state, no matter if someone’s died in your family that day… there’s nothing else there. It’s just like being a surfer riding a wave.”
“And why are your legs sore?” I asked.
“Cos of the gunshot wound,” replied Del. “Getting knee-capped. When I’m on stage, nothing else matters. It’s a better buzz than any Class ‘A’ drug I’ve ever took. I’m buzzing on adrenaline all the way home. That’s why I do it… It don’t feed you, it don’t put shit in your fridge, but it feeds you in the soul.”
“Why a gunshot wound?” I asked.
“Cos I got shot by accident,” replied Del, after a pause. “The gun went off by accident and I got shot.”
“Who accidentally shot y…” I started to say.
“My brother,” said Del immediately.
“How come?” I asked.
“Because, basically, I was winding him up,” said Del, “and he picked up the gun and he didn’t realise that there was still one in the chamber and it went off. He didn’t mean it to go off, he didn’t mean to shoot me, my parents were very, very…”
“How old were you?” I asked.
“About 17. But my parents were… Let’s say they didn’t have the best morals around, but they did teach us how to shoot. If it had been intentional, it would have been in the head.”
“It may seem a bit dull,” I told Del, “but, when I grew up, we didn’t have guns in our house.”
“We did,” said Del. “We had quite a few guns in the house.”
“Because?” I asked.
“Everyone I knew had a gun,” Del replied.
“This is in Kilmarnock, Scotland, in the 1980s?” I checked.
“Yeah,” said Del. “Late 1970s, early 1980s. We grew up with pump-actions and .22s. People did use guns up there for legitimate reasons, I suppose. Like shooting vermin on their estates.”
“Depends on your definition of words,” I said. “What did your parents do?”
“They were heroin wholesalers,” Del told me. “Well, my dad… The first 20 years of his life, he was heavily involved in drugs. But my dad’s been ‘clean’ 27 years and actually started working in a rehab. So he spent the first half of his life putting people on the gear; and the second half of his life getting them off it.”
“He’s had a full life,” I said.
“My birth mother actually died a year ago yesterday,” said Del. “Cancer. It was horrible. Fair warning: anyone who’s had an alcohol or a drug problem in their life and who has anything like that on their medical record… When you come to the end of your life, the NHS will treat you like a piece of shit. They will Hum and Hah about benzos and morphine and they won’t even give you the duty of care – because you’ve got that on your record.
“Even though you’ve got like a week to live, they think you’re trying to blag them to get some extra morphine. It wasn’t until the third day that the Macmillan nurses came in and done great work… She came in and she trebled the morphine and my mother had two peaceful days, God bless her, and she slept and went. That was a bit of a shock to me when I saw it with my own eyes.
“My dad’s been clean 27 years. He had a liver biopsy and he went to the hospital and asked What about pain relief? He’d never took no pain relief, cos that’s the way he rolls. But the doctor’s still looking at him after 27 years like my dad’s trying to do him out of 4 or 5 codeine a day. Like 10 pence worth of codeine. Which I take as an insult but also find pretty funny.
“It’s people’s psyche. They don’t change their opinion about you, no matter how much you turn your life around. Every day of my life, I try to do two mitzvahs – two acts of random kindness. I’m a big believer in What goes round comes round and I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life and I’ve had Bad back for those mistakes, but the way I’ve tried to live my life for the last seven or eight years is just trying to be a better person, trying to be creative and trying to make the world a better place.”
“When we talked about this a few years ago,” I said, “you told me your son had turned your life round.”
“That was it,” said Del. “I went to jail and I had never been away from my son for a day of his life – he was about 5 – and that was a shock to my system. What I was doing at that time – selling pot – gave me what middle class people would call flexi-time. So I did very little work. I would go out for three hours on a Sunday and make £1,000. I could live on that and spend lots of time with my son. Going to jail was a shock to my system. I wanted positive affirmation for my son. My son is now in all the top classes at school, never been in trouble at school. He is all the things I wasn’t at 15.”
“And how old is he now?”
“Even if I stop doing stand-up tomorrow,” Del told me, “in the last eight, nine, ten years, it was never about fame or fortune. It was about me actually putting some good into the world. It was about bringing my son up with positive affirmation, because I don’t want him to be a scally like I was. But I don’t know what’s going to happen. Tomorrow, I could go back to doing what I done ten or twenty years ago. Who knows?”
“You sold pot,” I said, “and…?”
“Only pot,” said Del. “I’ve never sold any Class ‘A’. After everything I saw with my parents, I never ever wanted to sell Class ‘A” – I don’t believe you get any luck with the money.”
“And your father…” I prompted.
“They were the main dealers,” explained Del, “for the whole West Coast of Scotland for about eight years.”
“And he was using it as well?”
“Yes. He was using it from the 1970s. But people don’t understand that there were no illegal drugs in this country back then. There was a small select group where he came from of about eight people. And that’s all there was for many years. They got their drugs by breaking into pharmacies and chemists and, in chemists at that time, you had 98.7% pure heroin and cocaine.
“In 1979, my dad was one of the first five registered addicts in the whole of Scotland and he was on a scrip (a prescription) from Edinburgh… But the first thing Margaret Thatcher did when she got in as Prime Minister was take away the junkies’ scrips and that’s when the illegal drugs market started. It was an accumulation of the (Soviet Union’s) war in Afghanistan and the Shah getting thrown out of Iran. The 1980s were just flooded with heroin for a catalogue of reasons but, if Thatcher hadn’t done that then, we probably wouldn’t have had the numbers on heroin that we ended up with.”
“I’ve never understood why we stopped supplying heroin to addicts,” I said. “We seemed to have a system that worked at that time.”
“There was 300 addicts in London in 1973,” said Del. “The whole of London. Think about that. While my dad was on that scrip, he had a job, an apprenticeship. He was actually working, going to his work every day, living a normal life.”
“And, getting back to your gunshot wound…?” I said.
“I still get horrific pain,” replied Del.
“And there’s nothing they can do about it?” I asked.
“No. It’s fucked,” said Del. “It makes my leg swell up and the blood don’t pump properly. Veins and nerve damage. All smashed-up. They wanted to cut my leg off and I wouldn’t let them.
“I went home and, after about four years, when I came to London, I was doing Class ‘A’ and my leg swelled up and Guy’s Hospital threw me out with some morphine and told me if I started urinating blood to come back. I sat in a room for fifteen months and my leg wouldn’t straighten – bright red, like a boxing glove – nearly lost my leg – and it took me fifteen months to learn how to walk again, to straighten my leg. I was shot in my left leg and now, when I walk, I walk on three toes on my left foot and the heel on my right foot.”
“I don’t know. That’s just how I’ve adapted to walk. The blood clot caused nerve damage in my ankle so, when I pull my sock on… you know when you hit a nerve in your tooth and you go Agghhhh!? My ankle’s like that. But it’s been like that since I was 23. I take prescribed drugs now to block the spasms: you know the drugs they take to stop seizures? It’s them things. It stops the nerves from jigging.”