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FIVE years ago Richard Gwyn was told he didn't have long to live - 12 months the doctors said, unless a suitable liver donor could be found.

He was suffering with Hepatitis C, cirrhosis and was slowly going mad from the toxins his body was unable to flush creeping into his brain and causing him to hallucinate.

But, in his new memoir The Vagabond's Breakfast, the 54-year-old reveals how he managed to survive the toll which nine "lost years" drifting across the Mediterranean, both alcoholic and homeless, waged on him, and how he turned his life around to become a celebrated author and one of the leading academic lights at Cardiff University.

"I found myself studying anthropology at the London School of Economics at around the same time bands like The Sex Pistols were starting out," said Gwyn, from Crickhowell.

"I was trying hard to be a beat poet, and would turn up to different bands' gigs to see if they'd let me do a reading before they went on.

"But doing that didn't really pay the rent, so I ended up taking various odd jobs like milkman, but I wasn't great at that either," he laughed.

"I remember it being a very cold winter one year and, having stayed up all night, I really couldn't be bothered to do the round and would give the milk away to whoever I met who didn't have much money.

"Then one morning I was jumped on by two plain clothes policemen who clearly had none of the Christmas spirit and hauled me in for defrauding the dairy.

"It went to a jury trial at crown court and everything - Unigate-gate, I suppose," he smiled, adding that a horrific accident was to irrevocably shape the direction his life would take next.

"I was working at a reproduction furniture factory in the East End and, while feeding wood through an electric rip saw the plank split and my left hand got mangled on the blade and I lost one and a half fingers.

"So, with London becoming an ever more grim place to be at the time - Thatcherism was on the rise, there were riots in Brixton and Tottenham, the National Front were getting stronger - I took my compo money and went to Crete and bought a fishing boat.

"I'd gone there a few times as a teenager and had always loved it," recalled the dad-of-two, who was by now 24.

"Having grown up amidst the wet, grey slate roofs of home it just had a natural appeal for me, I didn't really have any plans beyond that, really."

Renting cheap digs and working as a waiter in a dingy fish restaurant, he began drinking - or rather increased the amount he'd been regularly imbibing since his teens.

"Alcohol had always been an issue for me, I realise that now, and travelling about I did develop a very serious drinking problem," he said.

When asked how serious was "serious", Gwyn's answer is a shocking one.

"While I was living on the road I suppose I was downing about seven litres of red wine a day," he said matter-of-factly.

"It was dirt cheap, mind." Working menial agricultural jobs Gwyn would pass the year in different countries - a shift in a Greek olive factory giving way to orange picking in Spain and summers in the South of France harvesting peaches and maize.

After that, grape collecting would take him back to November when he'd return to Greece.

"I suppose I had that whole Jack Kerouac thing in my head and thought at some point I'd have a proper house, a real job and be able to write, but the further you get into addiction the further those things drift from the reality of your situation."

One time, while picking plums with a team of Romany travellers, Gwyn even witnessed what could very well have been a murder - but he has no way of knowing.

"Me and two Irish guys had been travelling from farm to farm in this large white van whose driver had been constantly arguing with a woman in the passenger seat," he said.

"Suddenly we screeched to a halt and the woman grabbed a hammer from the glove compartment and started raining blows onto the head of another woman we'd just passed at the side of the road.

"It was vicious, the three blows came with a sickening sound and the woman just slumped to the ground and the other men in the van managed to overpower her attacker. "Me and the two Irish guys just legged it and I was never tempted to work with the gypsies again.

"They clearly lived by another code entirely," he added.

"The majority of homeless people I met, though, were pretty harmless, but you always get a few psychos anywhere you go.

"I daresay that if you hang around with bankers you'd find a few unhinged sorts among their ranks," he smiled.

But it was in 1989 that Gwyn realised he had to turn his life around or give it up altogether.

"I'd been attacked a few times but it was getting difficult to say as I had started to experience black-outs," he said.

"I was potato picking in Northern Spain and was out on the p*** with this Palestinian guy I'd become friendly with.

"I have no memory from that moment to two weeks later when I woke up in Barcelona. I woke up on a bench in this notorious square where all the drug dealers and transvestites would hang out," added Gwyn.

"These two cops came over to speak to me and I realised I couldn't stand and that something was seriously wrong. I spent the next four days in hospital in a sort of pneumonic delirium and thought I was dying."

It was a Catalan painter friend who told Gwyn he needed to return home to sort his life out.

"I decided to go back to college and, shortly after moving to Cardiff met my wife Rose," he said.

"After managing to get a scholarship at Cardiff Uni I got work tutoring, and not long after my kids were born."

And, four years to the month since he had his life-saving liver transplant, Gwyn is currently the director of the MA in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing at Cardiff University.

"If my story proves anything it's that we're all capable of reinventing ourselves, of deserving second chances," he said "If you judge someone you see sitting in rags in the street and write them off then you're doing them a great injustice.

"Everyone's got their own story and each one is worth being told." * The Vagabond's Breakfast by Richard Gwyn is published by Alcemi, priced pounds 9.99


Richard Gwyn now and, far left, in his days of wild living
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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Apr 17, 2011
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