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This text Pixelation was written by author and journalist Mark Piggott over several months in the winter of 1998/99. I first met Mark at a garden party in West Sussex in 1997 and it became clear that we had much in common. Mark who himself has experienced homelessness and written widely about it for the national newspapers has in this text reflected on the street phenomena in an unflinching manner but with deep personal understanding of living on the periphery of mainstream society. His spontaneous prose of poetic observations and non-translated conversations is fragmented like the City itself. Like a modern day beatnik or Parisan psycho geographer he wanderers the dark streets at night looking for love and the promised land - and maybe through meeting and talking to others he can understand the cold and lonely world that he himself inhabits. His text Pixelation is, like my photographs, just our own story with no invested priorities in socio-political issues or hidden agendas. It is an entirely independent project which has received no external funding but commended endorsements from Prince Charles, Crisis and publishers, Booth-Clibborn Editions, Dewi Lewis Publishing, UK and Forlaget Politisk Revy, Denmark. Unfortunately we have been unable to locate a grant of £10.000 to contribute towards printing costs and our publishing deals are pending further developments. A selection of photographs and text pieces has been exhibited in various places including Shakespeare's Globe, London 1998, Worker's Museum, Copenhagen and Watershed Media Centre, Bristol 1999. To see installation pictures and for more information click here.
I would like to thank Mark for yet again a non-compromising and formidable piece of writing and hope we can continue to despair and debate while rejoicing in Shane McGowan and his version of Waltzing Matilda.

 


Pixelation


Can't rest on your laurels now, not when you got none
you'll find yourself in the gutter right back where you came from.

- Ian Curtis, 'Novelty'.

*
I don't know if any of the following is true.

*

One cold night in another century, the longest of the year, I realised I had lost my keys. The only spare set was with my friends and they had gone away, and I couldn't think of anyone else's number, forced out of my excitable head no doubt by all the ones I mentally underline, PIN and credit card and national insurance; and so I set out across London on foot.
Sloane Square at night is like a particularly schmaltzy Disney film: all women in furs, children in burgundy school uniforms, tastefully coloured lights. The West Indian steel band play a selection of carols. The scene is one of affluence: shoppers with bags from Peter Jones, shop displays of obscenely priced toys, clothes and furniture, the most expensive restaurants in town, and a huddle of blankets outside Smiths in the cold.
Many homeless people sleep during the day, when it's warmer and safer; at night they wander here and there. In a shop window in Victoria Street I see my image in a computer screen, reduced to digits by the camera, a Windows world, a binary whirl, pixelated like Jerry Springer's guests; with cable TV, even the picture breaks into squares of light., square pegs in square holes, slipping and sliding into hyperspace: a binary world of light and no shadow, all yes and no. A rapist once told me: 'there's no black and white, only black and grey', but try telling that to the pint of Guinness whose presence I prostrate myself before.

When I ran away from home I took a bus to Victoria and wandered up this same street, weaving through the colonnades to Westminster. If only I'd known then what I know now: what? I'd never have gone back to Yorkshire, I'd have ended up in some hostel or squat, a junkie or a rent boy, because I was young and easily led. Now as I wander women avoid my eye, perhaps scared by this hooded figure with a growth on his chin and a wallet as thin as his haircut.
People shout louder when you're out on the street. I drink from the can of Tennants, a semiotic badge of blue, and wonder if I'm violating any laws. There are so many empty dark streets to hide in, to get lost in. Outside Parliament they protest about Pinochet, and in Downing Street I flash back to the election, great hopes and dreams, shaking Eddie Izzard by the hand and being interviewed on Japanese TV. I was jubilant then. It didn't last long.
On the old main drag of Leicester Square, songs of Shane McGowan, just like the daze of old and I don't even smoke. In doorways in the Strand they all ask me for money, despite (or because of) my appearance: scruffy, can, slow, stagger- I don't need to do this and I can't, it's not genuine and I'm too honest.
All I need to do is remember- what's important is being outside it all. You walk and they (the suited ones where I'm fleeing) look down or through you, in disgust and fear. The people of the street are suspicious, also jolly because Christmas is coming, they lie on their bags and it's not too cold, a street party: everyone has that party spirit tonight, tonight- and there are people in good restaurants eating, laughing, drinking and I hate them, but I can't speak for anyone else.
In Chinatown chickens glisten and smells overwhelm, invade, remind, and in the pubs there are women, who see the hungry, angry look in your eyes, and the dodgy stain in your jeans and look away; even the police ignore you, so many wander the streets like me. Past the Yugoslav bar, loud music and lovely office girls come out and point to the next one: 'why don't we go in there?' Assurance in their voices, but dressed like this you're taking your chances.
Even pissing is tough: I nearly go behind Chinatown, but from behind the door I hear Chinamen shouting and decide against it, racist visions of being chased with swords- I saw that here once. Four waiters glistened and burned like chickens: locked in a cell in chains together, petrol over them, the strike of a match, mesmerised more by the flame than I am by Spider's antics in Shaftesbury Avenue, the exact spot where the four Greeks battered me one night and the homeless came to my senses, to my rescue, showed me the rent boy hotel where I could wash my bleeding face.
No, this is not for me- I'm out of it now and always had chances they never had- maybe- the best new family money could buy but I was skint and they took me anyway- and I had known love and I fucking deserve it, everyone deserves it, but should you have to work for it? Answers on a postcard will be returned to sender, address unknown.

Troubles - trouble is I had to get a piss. I had to go in a pub where they know me (but not that well) and I bought a bottle of wine to drink at home and as soon as I carried that bottle instead of a can I crossed over again, and here I am on the other side with the suits and smart alecs and feeling right outside- flat nose up against the glass, alone. But maybe not for long, I've met someone new who laughs at my jokes (strange girl) so maybe I just don't belong on the streets, I'm too much of an optimist, just close your eyes and dive into the pool, don't bother checking to see if there's water, just do the swallow dive, the slow dive, and hope.
I'll give them this- these spirits of the street- they ask me if I want a Big Issue and I smile and say no thanks and they smile and wish me a happy Christmas. This lot of yuppies wouldn't give you the steam off their turds to warm their granny's fingers in a frost. You have to confront things, you have to be honest - I was never homeless for long, and usually had options.
You must be honest, or what's the point? At the bus stop in Charing Cross Road, a black guy on a mobile outside Molly Moggs doing deals- hundreds of cabbies wait for trade, behind me the Salsa club, not an English accent in sight- young girls next to me argue in Spanish to a cabbie- food smells and bright lights, London is a fast city which never moves, what you really miss on the street is music.

*
Music? Is that all? Remember the music and remember the past on that non-event horizon sliding backwards like Beckett through the thicket, you can only see what has gone and not what is to be, so we peek as a Jungian race over the susurrating hedgerows to see what's ahead, and the only certainty is a shared puddle of emotions defined through music: through New Order and Tchaikovsky and the Band of Holy Joy, Abrasive Wheels and Cal from Discharge (all on a cassette for Alan, who you'll meet again later), Shane and Bowie and hardcore punk, Buddy Holly and John Lennon and the immaculate Smiths and a hundred million smiles, never under-appreciate the value of that CD, that tape from its battered holder covered in pictures and multi-coloured biro, most of all from the ill-defined segments of that cool thin disc of black light, there are so many times you can hear them in your life and that's it, show's over, so suck your Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton because there's only so many times you will ever hear it again, ask a man on the street about music.
*
In the summer of 1983, I was fortunate enough to spend a night under the stars. Although I had known homelessness with my mother as a small child, and would know many more years of housing insecurity, I can point to that night on a park bench in a place called Three Bridges and say, 'you made me.' Everything in my life I place before or after that night, full of revelations, an epiphany worthy of Joyce; I finally resolved that, for me at least, there was no God- my own personal a priori was established, as I stood (or rather lay) on the brink of adulthood. I resolved that I would always have to do things, 'get on', for and by myself. And, most relevant perhaps to this essay, the recurring themes of homelessness, rootlessness and alienation in my writing would be given a legitimacy no-one will ever be able to snatch away.
*
King's Cross. The wide patch of pavement outside WH Smiths is known to the homeless community as The Slab. Not that many rough sleepers hang around there too long, the beggars and pimps and dealers are too aggressive. Besides which there's this awareness of the cameras monitoring your every move, should you make one.
Just now, walking down York Way, I crossed the canal bridge where a gang of youths raped an Austrian and asked if she could swim, then threw her in the water when she said no. Suddenly I remembered the old dosser woman hit by a car. I'd been leaving some friend's house around two a.m. and she was lying on the ground with a huge cut in her head.
A couple of people gathered around gawking as she moaned. I asked if anyone had a mobile. Someone did so I called for the ambulance. The others drifted off so I sat and held her hand. She was horrifically ugly, and growled like an animal. I stroked the hair away from her face. The ambulance came and I was shocked by their attitude. They didn't care. So I insisted on going in the ambulance to make sure she was alright, and they were immediately suspicious.
At the hospital I sat and waited for news. In the end they threw me out. When I tried to get back in the bouncers nearly beat me up. I showed my old press card to the doctors and nurses smoking and laughing on night duty and they shrugged. I considered going back with a baseball bat but I didn't have one.
Squeezed up an alley, sandwiched between King's Cross and the looming Victorian monster that is St Pancras, the Simon Community hostel is marked only by a number. Inside the heat from the kitchen, where a vast vegetable soup is being made, makes the whole place cheerful and steaming. Old men and women sit alone and in groups, some talking, some sleeping, others just staring. You can stay seven nights in a row, then you have to leave.
'Has that fucking journalist been in yet?' asks a resident. One of the volunteers points at me, and he looks surprised. 'Oh, sorry mate, I thought you were one of the inmates.' I grin and shrug and take it as a compliment. I always dress like this. But they say it isn't your clothes, it's your eyes. Many's the time I've passed street people pestering others for money and they've just said hello, or raised their cans and laughed. Possibly I should worry about this more than I do.
Old Isaac looks like Santa, with a great white bushy beard and smile-wrinkled eyes. He is a little distressed and his breath smells of sticky old booze. He takes me by the arm. 'Sometimes,' he says in a gentle Scottish accent, 'my brain is right up there in the clouds, and then it's down there.' He points to the scrubbed kitchen floor. 'Do you follow me?' 'Yes.' 'Maybe the answer is to have a drink, I really don't know.' 'Why don't you try something to eat?' I coax him gently. He brightens. 'Aye, they'll make me some porridge. I love porridge.'
'Also used for wallpaper paste,' says David, a tall, lean Londoner in his Fifties. David is a resident at present, and also a volunteer. 'I know them all up at Crisis headquarters, they've just got a load of new furniture. There must be sixty paid staff up there. Most of them are okay. At least there you get a cup of tea. I was at the Department of Transport the other day for a meeting about funding, and we didn't even get a cuppa. Hilary Armstrong (then Minister for Housing) is nice enough.
'I've met lots of politicians, once we were in Brighton and went to this posh place and met Paddy Ashdown. Got a good place to stay as well. When I went to Blackpool we had to be in by ten thirty, and there wasn't even a bar. The best place was in the Lake District, you had your own key. You could do as you liked up there. Go out on the piss, anything.'
David tells me about some of the problems faced on the streets. 'I've been trying to get my mate into a hostel in the cold weather. He's seventy, and he shouldn't be out in this. So I took him up to Camden (housing department) and we had to wait for hours. It was disgraceful. I've got another mate, a young Scottish lad, he's got TB. He disappeared for a few months, turned up a month ago, dressed up all smart in a suit and a forty quid anorak. He'd been staying at some hostel in Chester. Doesn't look well at all. TB is definitely on the increase.'
David is scathing about local authorities in general. 'Have you seen what it's like down in Brighton these days? I came out of the train station and walked down Weston Road and counted sixty in doorways. They've finally agreed to open up a cold weather shelter but it's only got thirty beds, I mean what's the point of that? It's ridiculous. No wonder they're squatting those beach huts down there.'
Stewart, a young volunteer from Middlesboro, has been in London only a few months. When you're a volunteer you share a room with an inmate, clean up, and cook- as we talk he is busy chopping turnips and unidentifiable root vegetables and solving all those little problems caused by lots of people living together- but mainly you do outreach work.
We take a tube to Holborn and walk to the Strand past the blazing theatre lights of Drury Lane. In doorways and hunched against windows they wait for the soup vans. Stewart's technique is simple: he offers rollups to anyone who looks like they need it. This creates trust quickly and cheaply; as does the fact he always squats to roll, down to their level.
A young black Scouser accepts Stewart's offer of a rollie and we sit down with him. Stewart asks if he's going in one of the night shelters over Christmas. He shrugs good naturedly.
'Fuck that man, they nick everything off you in there. Last time I had me sleeping bag nicked. I'd sooner take me chances here.' 'You can't trust volunteers,' offers Stewart. The Scouser laughs. There is also the fact that when you enter some shelters, you have to give your national insurance number so they can keep track of you. This automatically cancels out refugees, older people, the confused, and the very young.
In the next doorway sits another black kid, an East End Cockney who asks me where I'm from. I always dread that question (because I don't know anymore) so I tell him I've been in London almost fifteen years. He stares at my youthful face incredulously. 'I know,' I tell him, 'easy life.' He laughs. 'Lily white bwoy!' I laugh too. But the old woman in the next doorway isn't laughing. She's old, in her seventies, and sat all twisted up, her legs beneath her, can in hand and confused.
'They're animals round here, they steal all the food, they broke into St Martin's the other night and stole everything, so we don't have anything to eat. Over at Deptford they're all dead, all these lawyers, English Scottish Irish Norwegian, sixty or eighty of them dead in the Deptford Canal...'
A short, wiry kid with a curious accent which is half London and half Brum drifts over with a carrier bag in his hand. He glares at us with fierce eyes, full of malice but not for us, for his brother.
'I just come out of nick, did a four stretch, GBH, it was his fault, he hit me bird, I mean whatever you do don't hit a woman in front of me, he was always after our mum, used to attack her with knives, guns, anything, so I had to do him, and now it's all starting up again. I had some trouble, me dad got in a fight but he knew where they lived so I went round there, didn't I, and they know where to find me, I go all over, Brighton up north, but always the same places but I don't give a fuck, if they want me they know where to find me, I'll do another four stretch I don't care.'
Leaving the Strand regulars to wait for the vans, which don't come at a regular time so you sometimes have to wait for hours, we meet a young Scots guy in a sleeping bag at the corner of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street. 'I don't want a rollie I want food,' he tells us, 'I'm so fucking hungry, have you got any food?' Oxford Street is all gaudy coloured lights and closing down sales, bustling shoppers and golf sales (whatever they are), and every few steps there's another huddle, a sleeping bag, a story.
A young Italian girl rejects our offer of a rollie, saying she's sick of that brand, the two prim things at the cashpoint next to her stare at us as if we're scum, trying to chat up a girl on the street. Over the road two middle aged men smile happily when we stop for a chat. Brian is fifty something and a Northerner, Harry is forty something and a Londoner, and they offer me a drink from the McDonalds cup with a straw.
'You look like you've had a few yourself today, son,' they tell me with glee. I haven't, up till now; it's just I spent last night lying awake thinking of bills, work and love, but at least I was in a bed. I take a suck of the drink and it's disgusting, like vinegar, hard wine and fuck knows what else, and I screw up my face as Brian laughs.
'Some woman gave it to us, some posh woman, she was pissed out of her head and she says here, it's Christmas, but I'm not complaining, keeps you warm.'
As we leave them Stewart tells me about Brian. 'The police have him electronically tagged for surveillance, he's just come out of prison for sex offences, so everywhere he goes they can trace him by helicopter.'
There's an old Scots guy in Berwick Street with a cheery grin beneath his grey moustache. He speaks in an almost impenetrable accent about the merits of various brands of whiskey. He and I come to the shared conclusion that Irish beats Scotch because of its smoothness. This important point happily concurred upon, I walk with Stewart down towards Soho. Another Scotsman with a red Santa hat on stops us, out of his head.
'These fucking tourists,' he laughs, 'they all pretend they don't understand English when you hold out your hand. They'd understand well enough if I pulled out a fucking revolver and put it to their head, wouldn't they?' He demonstrates by cocking two fingers at my temple, laughing. Then he staggers off into the night.
'A lot of people on the street do drink,' says Stewart, 'but the question is, was it drink that put them there or do they just do it to keep warm? Lots of people enjoy a drink, but they do it in pubs or at home. By the very nature of being outside, you're obviously going to see people drink. Some do take drugs as well, heroin in particular makes you feel warm, but to say they're all alcoholic junkies is ridiculous.'
You get allsorts out on a night like this. In general most people are friendly and honest, grateful at the offer of a rollie and a bit of a chat, some human companionship. There are obvious exceptions, though, such as a young crusty with dreadlocks who we meet in Shaftesbury Avenue. 'Scuse me mate, want a rollie?' asks Stewart. The man's eyes narrow suspiciously. 'Why?' Stewart makes light of it. 'I dunno!' he laughs, and we walk on.
The more you look, down dark alleys and in doorways, behind skips and in basements, the more street people you find. The more you meet, the harder they are to ignore. There is definitely a kind of community here, many seem to know each other. Yet this very sense of belonging to something, of being an outcast, can make it harder to break free of the streets.
'Charing Cross Road... three, Oxford Street... six...' as we walk, Stewart does a rough count of the rough sleepers. He comes to the same conclusions as most of the voluntary sector: on any one night, in the centre of London, around four hundred people sleep rough. For all the initiatives, cold weather shelters, and charities, the figure never seems to change. It's the hidden homeless: tucked away in hostels and squats, bed and breakfasts, sleeping on floors, invisible.
'Things are worse now than any time in the last twenty years,' says Stewart. 'With the Tories it was a direct result of policy, but New Labour don't seem to have done a lot.'
Opposite the Blue Posts pub two young lads called Jimmy and Pete read books. Jimmy, the younger of the two and clean- shaven, sings the praises of puff (marijuana) and Howard Marks. His companion Pete is reading a war novel.
'I was in the Gulf War,' says Jimmy, who only looks about twenty five. 'Tank Division. Saw a lot of active service. I was in the Basra Road, saw some things you wouldn't believe. War is for soldiers, not politicians. They should finish the job with Saddam, he's scum.'
'I was Navy,' says Pete. 'Went all over the world. Came back to England and it all went wrong. Met Jimmy here, we're from the same town just out of London, and we've been together five years.' A scruffy mongrel pops up its head from under the blanket. 'Oh, and Cinders. He's a good dog. We keep to ourselves, not into drugs. Booze yes, maybe a smoke (dope), but not the hard stuff. There's ones round here on crack, smack, meth, allsorts.'
As if to illustrate his point, a young junkie staggers towards us, throwing his empty can high in the air so that it clatters in the road. He slurs something unintelligible, them tries to steal Jimmy's slippers. A tug of war takes place.
'Get off me fucking slippers!'
'I only want to have a look.'
'Get your fucking own.'
The junkie staggers off. Jimmy sighs patiently.
'They're useful, slippers. If you need a piss in the night it's a right hassle putting your boots on, and you don't want to get wet socks, do you?'
'What do you do, anyway, mate?' asks Pete, much to my dismay. We were getting along so well.
'I, er, well I write a bit.' Pete and Jimmy's faces fall.
'Oh.'
There's a fair in Leicester Square: all giddy spinning lights and squeals of delight, the flashing bulbs of tourist cameras and couples in love. One such couple, Michelle and Mike, sit under a cinema awning in a swamp of sleeping bags and blankets. There are others there too, who ask us who we're with.
'Simon,' says Stewart simply.
'Oh, fuck.' The two scarper at the name, probably expecting a religious sermon. Mike glares at us aggressively from his blanket, but Michelle seems happy singing along to her Walkman.
'You two Paddies, aren't yer?' Mike says in a threatening London accent.
'No,' says Stewart, 'Middlesboro.'
'Bollocks! You're fucking Paddies. Where you from, Dublin?'
'No mate I told you, I'm from the North East. Some of me family's Irish but I'm a 'Boro lad.'
'Bollocks! You're Paddies, the two of yer.'
This goes on for some time, until Michelle sighs and takes off the Walkman.
'For fucks' sake Mike, they aren't Paddies, I used to live in Manchester, they're from up North.' We decide to go. There doesn't seem much point talking to someone who is aggressive, drunk or jacking up. But people like Stewart are out every night, rain or moonshine, taking risks for nothing but humanity. I ask him what he wants at the end of all this: a proper job? He looks at me curiously. 'No. I just do this because that's all I want to do.'
Stewart doesn't appear to have any particular religious conviction, though he does admit that the Salvation Army do some good things. It's just that many people despise the very concept of charity. In his oft-quoted log of poverty in the Twenties, 'Down and Out in Paris and London', Orwell recognised that a common feature of man is that they despise the person who is giving them something. Which is perhaps why the offer of a simple rollie is so much more gratefully accepted than food, blankets, or a bed.
Stewart accepts that in some ways the lifestyle of the street has its attractions: 'There's no worrying about bills, rent, things like that. If you know where to go you can get food, clothes, and a wash, all for nothing. In some ways there's no responsibility. But don't be under any illusions. It's a tough life, and most of them want to get away from it.' The only problem is, they don't know where to go. Many want to get away, but society doesn't seem to offer viable alternatives, other than sticking them in tower blocks and bed and breakfasts and throwing them into empty jobs.
By the end of the evening my feet are aching from the walking, and I ponder how those feet would feel after a few weeks on the street. Stewart does an incredible job, with its fair share of risks, yet he doesn't do it for any reward; for him there is simply no alternative.
I leave Stewart in Tottenham Court Road. He's off back to the hostel, and I'm off to the pub. I shake his hand then cross that invisible barrier back into another world, wondering which is the more real. In 'Dark Hearts', his excellent book about Britain's 'underclass'- that word has hateful connotations, but it will have to do- journalist Nick Davies speaks about this other country co-existing with our own, a world of poverty and violence. I've tight roped along that border for much of my life, but tonight, as I enter a warm pub to smiles from the bar man, I realise on which side I have fallen, and I am glad. Yet the streets of London, so familiar to me, suddenly seem alien and strange.
On the bus home all I can see are huddles in doorways, shaking blankets and frozen sleeping bags, and I wonder what's inside. I think: 'what brought you here?' Then I think, 'I'm doing this for you.' Finally I think, 'No I'm not.' I get home to the empty flat and need a shower to wash the streets away, because I can. I turn on the television and they're bombing Iraq, and I think of the Gulf War veteran in his sleeping bag, reading a book.
*
I first met photographer Martin Toft at a garden party in Sussex. With his Danish accent, his tattoos and his street clothes, he fitted in about as well as I did. Martin was living in a homeless hostel in Dean Street: he told me he did it through choice, to get close to the subjects of his photographs. Having had years of insecure or inadequate housing, I found his dedication somewhat unnerving.
Despite our differing backgrounds, we had much in common: most importantly, we shared a belief that many of London's homeless are homeless through choice; that sticking vulnerable people in tower blocks and infested hostels is society's way of hiding a truth about itself; and that even in the streets and subways of London, the homeless have become invisible.
We set out to discover the truth about what is in essence a culture, or a subculture, of its own. To listen to the voices of those who inhabit this invisible world. Maybe, just maybe, to come up with some answers. And so here we are in the Bullring, or Waterloo Road Roundabout, the notorious homeless hangout yards from Waterloo Station.
You can see why they called it the Bullring. The grey concrete arena has darkened tunnels spraying off in all directions: one can imagine tethered beasts waiting to be unleashed for the edification of the overhanging office blocks. Martin and I sit in the battered cluster of benches at the centre of the hundred yard diameter circle and wait beneath a battered signpost with a notice attached. At some point within the next six weeks the inhabitants of the Ring shall be evicted by force. Looking around the windswept place on this grey Thursday morning, I ask myself: why would anyone want to live here anyway?
'Last time I was here, I almost got in big trouble,' says Martin. 'They nearly beat me up and smashed my camera. I said, smash my camera and I'll kill you.'
Slowly they drift over, in ones and twos. Martin has spent months gaining the trust of the locals, and they start to sit around us with cigs and booze. One long haired Scottish guy wears a kilt, which he soon raises to flash his cheeky answer to the unasked question. Husky is also Scottish, with longish ginger hair and a dog called Demon, a gentle black old thing with a hint of grey. I give Husky a cigarette.
'Ta. Hope you like me patio. I was thinking of putting french windows in, but it didn't seem so friendly. Anyway, I quite like it as it is.' I suggest pebble dashing. 'What's that? Nah, sounds a bit tacky to me. I like it like this. That way, friends can just drop in.' The guy in the kilt comes over, drinking from a bottle of something. He starts talking about the Scottish island he is about to inherit, and unsure if he's joking, I make no comment. But Husky seems more concerned about his car. He discusses its faults with Martin, who is a qualified mechanic. To me, it is as if they are talking another language: the joys of motoring have always been lost on me. Besides which I am trying not to pass judgement on a street person with a car. 'I've got two,' says Husky. 'I've got a Volkswagen Polo as well. Doesn't fucking work, though.'
Three or four dogs are running about. I used to treat beggars with dogs with contempt: now, I can see their purpose, as company, security and provider of warmth. It gets cold at night even in summer, and starting fires can be dangerous. Adjacent to the Ring, under a gloomy section of the roundabout, elaborate constructions have been erected. These 'bashes' are home to many, and some of them look pretty secure. It's only upon closer inspection you see the scorch marks where fires have started accidentally or on purpose; and the names graffiti'd on the wall, in memoriam of those who died, of cold and drugs, heat and hopelessness.
Yet still my ears pick up references, to those who are 'up at their flat', or 'in the hostel'. Many of those in the Ring have beds somewhere else, yet still they are drawn to this place of almost unremitting grimness. Why? A burly Northerner with the remnants of a mohican enlightens me, swigging from a an endless can of Carlsberg Special Brew: Spesh.
Twenty eight years old, with hepatitis C, Alan keeps on drinking despite doctor's orders. The disease has one perk- a free bus pass. Though he now has a smart hostel room nearby he keeps on drifting back to the Ring. It has some deep symbolism, some strange draw, for the people of the street; urban Dreamtime.
'I'm from Bolton originally, been round Waterloo about seven years on and off. I just walked under the arch and I was welcomed straight away, by William. He's dead now, heroin. I felt at home here. I'm not scared of being attacked, though I have seen allsorts- some girl got slashed across the face, and sometimes the riot police come down and pull us out. I'm more scared of the rats, or the bash being set on fire.
'When you're sleeping out you just can't sleep, because of the cold, and your brain going so fast, you wake up at every little noise, which means you're permanently tired, and you end up having to go to the day centres to sleep. But it's okay in the Bull Ring 'cos there's a lot of you. A few died while I was there though, of pneumonia or drugs or whatever. I got that, but I was lucky, I was diagnosed early. I had to stay off the booze for a while though.
'I used to be a chef, up in Blackpool, small family place. I lived on site, but it were hard, I'd had enough working kitchens. I've done allsorts- demolition, portering. But then I got into whiz (amphetamine, 'speed'), and I were sharing needles. I don't bother with that anymore, I just smoke spliff now. And drink. Most people round here do. I do know some that don't touch anything, don't drink or even smoke, but there aren't many. I got diagnosed with hep C three or four years ago, I don't think there is any medication, and I know drink fucks your liver, but what can you do?
'Me mum died of liver failure four or five years ago. She used to be a home help, working with old folk. I told her I was homeless, and she just turned up, said she wanted to do the same. I put her into a hostel, and she finally got a flat up at Forest Hill. I rang me sister back in Bolton one evening, 4th November I think it was, I were asking about Bonfire Night, and she just said, 'mum's dead'.
'I've got a camera now. You're always getting people pointing cameras at you, so now I point mine back at them. I take shots of the others as well. I took loads at Princess Di's funeral. When you're on the street you're cut off from a lot of the news, but when I heard that I cried me eyes out. She did care, definitely, enough to come to the Bull Ring, and to take her kids out. She's well missed in the caring department. Then Mother Theresa died as well.
'I've got a saying, 'everyone's born dead.' But people do care, a lot of them anyhow. Some shout abuse, 'get a job' and all that shit, it does your head in if they ignore you or shout abuse. I don't like begging, I don't feel it's right, but I have to. I get some benefits, but not enough to live on. Most of me clothes are handouts. These boots are fucked, look- I've had 'em for ages, and I'm just walking the streets all day.'
Alan takes us back to his hostel room, where he has a cd player, cassette tapes (Elton John, ELO), and books (Kafka, William Gibson). He has blisters on his feet from the boots. He shows us haunting black and white photos, of the world he knows, and of Diana's funeral. The pictures are affecting. Pulling off his T-shirt he reveals his flabby, tattoo covered belly. He looks threatening, which is why he rarely gets hassle (unlike most other rough sleepers), but he is pretty much the cliché'd gentle giant. Framed on the wall are pictures (taken by Martin) of Alan with his girlfriend, Karen, who died of an overdose in June.
*
A lot can change in a year. Now Alan has his own housing association place in Camberwell. The Peabody Trust, which also saved me, is about the only large housing organisation which consistently allocates flats to young men. Generally speaking if you're young, male, a non- user and a non-alcoholic, you're at the back of the queue. Luckily for Alan he's a heavy drinker, a fact evident when I go and see him. The only contents of the fridge are a few cans of Spesh.
Although some money from the Trust's grant has gone into decorating the place, a lot more has been pissed up against the wall. Slumped on the old sofa are Spike and Kevin, the former practically comatose from smack, with tattoos all over his face, the latter pissed but merry and from the same town as Alan. We discuss the long- running Advisory Service for Squatters as Alan goes to the off license.
'We're from the same town,' says Kevin, 'and we were born on the same day on the same year- March 17th.' 'Paddy's day,' I tell him, 'good excuse for a piss- up.' He grins. 'Aye.' He doesn't look like he needs one. 'I lived in a caravan for years and years, travelled all over the place. Now I'm a bit stuck so I'm crashing with Alan for a bit.' He falls asleep.
Spike is less friendly, his rambling monologues almost entirely unintelligible, but the subtext of menace evident. Occasionally he tries to stand, to strip off his shirt and fight us, but falls back again. He is boring, about as boring as anyone I have ever met. After several hours of this someone's patience finally snaps and there is a squaring- up between him and Martin, who has finally had enough of his insults, everyone in the room sucked in to the petty drama, wearisome because you know something similar will happen every night in the Groundhog Daze of addiction.
Alan wants to get out, but he can't. He is bright and intelligent with a loving heart, but he can't escape from this world. He made a big mistake, telling his 'friends' where he lived; now he will never get rid of them, and probably fall back into the gutter through no real fault of his own. You always think it's going to be alright; when I got the letter through offering me a way out of the lice-infested bedsit I kissed the walls of the new flat with delight, and six months later I was alone in my box and suicidal, sometimes sleeping up on The Slab for a bit of company.
Having your own place means all kinds of new responsibilities; bills, rent, furniture; your excuses are stripped away and you have to start thinking about doing something with your life. Sometimes it seems so much easier to leave that empty box and drift back to the street, to your friends, where the problems are huge but less complicated. It is a pattern I see over and over again with the recurring tedium of Mondays.
*
It's a bitter cold night with a few shopping days before Christmas. Outside the Ritz sits Mark with a cardboard sign: 'Homeless and hungry please give this Christmas.' I sit next to a friendly Londoner in his late thirties and with a happy demeanour, watching the suits and boots drift past obliviously.
'I'm not really homeless,' Mark confides in me, 'Not for the last ten years, at least. I've got a flat in South London. I'm just trying to earn some extra money for Christmas. I'm earning beer money and for presents for my nephews and nieces. The other day I earned eighty eight pounds.'
Mark is eager to talk, too friendly: what if I was News of the World? 'I'm an artist actually, I used to have a studio in Brighton. I still have an agent in Central London. Oh, and I'm a writer as well. I'm doing a day by day diary of my experiences.'
Not a good start: I'm angry. Who does he think he is? Where was he when I was struggling to survive, lugging boxes round a warehouse? Who do they think they are, these people? Can I really be bothered to go and find out?
*
Boxes, boxed in, boxing. Lots of my friends live in boxes of cardboard heaped one on another in random pyramids, folding and collapsing, separated from other islands by the economy of paper-thin walls, afraid of the street, afraid of being the same, of being different. Thin cardboard walls which muffle the screams but the whispers follow you like shadows into your dreams, permeate and penetrate when all you want is to be self-contained, sealed up in a brown envelope, a hermetic corpse. Peak from behind nets at the strangers down below, shuffling, snuffling, (horror of horrors, laughing) then turn back to the screen.
Prisoners. The new ball and chain is a credit card. Put it off, put it on. One in four people live alone, and the trend is rising. Each in their small self-contained units. Workshops replace factories, no strikes, no unions, no camaraderie, no mines. Endless rows of strangers at desks with earphones taking requests for insurance (numbers underlined), pleading with strangers to get family portraits done at a discount, don't let your children down. Timed each time you visit the toilet, spend a few pennies, but no protests, too much fear. You drive to work because it's cheaper to drive than to take the train, and when you're in that shrink-wrap sealed unit you can't talk to others about how you feel.
You install CCTV cameras in every precinct, every shopping centre, state of the art guardians (art of the state) which record every face and match them to a database nobody legislates, and faceless security guards watch faceless pedestrians, blurred Bulgers, walking away. The cameras don't work as deterrents, but they make good television for Alasdair.
And if there's nothing on (there never is) you rent a video. Cheaper than going to the pictures, where you might discover people aren't as bad as they're making out. Sit at home alone with a takeaway (cheaper than going to the restaurant or even a café) swigging alcohol which is a third, a quarter of the price of drinking in the pub, where you might actually talk to someone. The theory of divide and rule is ancient, but it has reached it's logical conclusion: there is only you, the individual, no society, no common ground, nothing.
Along comes satellite then digital then cable, new words to memorise like analogue, interactive, pay-per-view; suddenly 200 or 2,000 channels which makes it worse, no longer the shared delights of Morecambe and Wise, just tap in a credit number and they're yours all alone. But when you're alone your laughter seems hollow.
Choice, yes. The choice to watch what you want when you want (as long as you can pay). Choice, the driving principle behind the most successful philosophy of all time. Green digital tides pulse and ripple through interlinked computer networks carrying details about who you are and what you consume to number crunching analysts across the globe. Trees are felled and pulped so they can send you 'innovations': catalogues of wares never needed across the great plateau of time, apple de-corers and microwave dishes and stacks for CDs.
Communicate via your modem with other lost souls in their boxes afraid of the world outside. Become busty bertha or pvc queen for a few cheap moments before you go to bed. Internet conspiracy theorists search the web as the millennium draws near for solace, solutions, digital Gods or the CIA ruling the waves (they're wrong).
Some work sixty hour weeks as faceless security guards watching monitors for two pounds per hour, others sit home all day with cheap cider and Supermarket Sweep. All in their boxes killing time. This is the age of leisure. As long as you can pay.
*
In the early days I'd be making excuses to go home. But as time went on I started to make excuses to stay out, to meet new people, to see things and be a part of the city. Out there was everything, at home there was nothing and nobody, just an empty box with a smaller box in the corner of the room. You can view the city from a million angles: I just chose the homeless one.
'If you're young, male, neither drink nor drug problem, forget it. You're at the back of a very long queue. I tried to get in a hostel and they asked me if I was an alcoholic or an addict. I said no to both, so they said they couldn't help me.' - Anon. When writing about homelessness it's harder to avoid clichés than for ships to avoid rocks (see?). See also under: The Ranters, Urban Dreamtime, psycho- geography, the history of drift.
*
I first met John Healy, author of 'The Grass Arena', at the thirtieth anniversary back- slap for Crisis, a homeless charity. I helped organise the publicity, and wrote the text for a photography exhibition; John had been invited to read some of his poems to the assembled masses at the Globe theatre.
He was in good company: Paul Weller, Beth Orton, Ardal O'Hanlon as compere, homelessness as an issue. John says when he saw me limp across the room he thought I was some homeless nutter who'd evaded security and made it into the posh confines of the restaurant below. The homeless weren't invited there, but fuckwits were apparently acceptable. Fair do's I suppose: Martin got head butted by Alan that same glorious night.
After a brief chat Healy invited me to visit him at his flat, which is as out of place as he is in the world of literature. The numbers on the doors of the grim council labyrinth off the Caledonian Road go 28...29... 37... I knock at 37 and the Cockney occupants laugh tolerantly. 'Whoever designed these blocks must've been pissed.' Healy himself spent a lot of years getting pissed; along with fighting, sleeping rough and doing time it forms the core of his autobiography, 'The Grass Arena.' He hasn't drank for many years now, and meditation keeps him trim, but there is the same old anger which drives his writing.
'The Grass Arena isn't about homelessness. It's about violence, it's about booze. There was no such word as homelessness in those days. You were a vagrant, a "man of the road". I was a chronic alcoholic- if you'd put me and the others in Buckingham Palace, we'd have been the same. It was hard living like that then. You couldn't wash your clothes, and had only the ones you stood up in. You needed a deposit to get a flat. You couldn't get cash off the Social every day, like they do now. You couldn't buy booze just anywhere, like you can now- although there was always somewhere. And the police were always asking you why weren't you married yet, were you a poof?'
After a brutalised childhood, like so many other homeless people, Healy drifted into drink, petty crime, and even the army. By his late teens, he was a part of the community of the street. I ask if it was the grim circumstances of John's life that led to him drinking, or vice versa.
'It was down to me violent childhood, a lot of it. I still have nightmares even now, there's no escape from them. Drink seemed to be the solution then. Now I know it isn't. I lead a calmer life now- but I still get violent flashes. I've been meditating now for twenty five years, but the flashes are a product of the mind. I'm still angry.'
Despite his success and recognition, John would appear to have a lot to be angry about. The literary world has in turn seduced and turned its back on him; I wonder how many editors and agents would brave the stairs to his flat after dark. He is having problems getting the follow up to The Grass Arena (The Glass Cage) published, focussing as it does on the absurdities of the publishing circus.
He is however having a script being developed with the film company run by Ken Loach, and reads extracts out. The script, two policemen trying to fit up a black Rasta for being in the IRA, is hilarious, and shows his work has a wide scope. He also has a book on chess out soon, and the flat has chess sets, and videos about the game which he regards as saving his life:
'In the Grass Arena, you can talk all you want, but when you're both naked in the sand- 'arena' means sand in Spanish- with knives in your hands, that's when it all counts for nothing. I see a direct parallel with chess.' One of the book's most poignant moments comes when Harry 'The Fox' introduces him to chess in prison. He says, 'Supposing I were to tell you about a game that's so good, if you were playing it you wouldn't know the pub was open."
John smiles. 'He actually did say that, but he said more. He actually said, '"Do you know how to play chess?" I said, "No." He said, "Why don't you learn? In chess you have to break and enter into your opponent's territory; you steal their pawns; mug their bishops; and then kill their king, in broad daylight".'
Healy sees chess, at which he became so adept that he drew against world masters, as a metaphor for life; I see it as a metaphor for the act of writing. For me, a central purpose of writing is to make sense out of the world, to create order where we know there is chaos. Although Healy rarely plays chess competitively these days- he feels he is 'too old'- John still has a deep love of the game, often playing exhibition matches against up to fifty opponents. It was through a chess magazine that his writing voice first became heard. 'In about '85, I wrote a short story, The Chess Master, which was published in a chess magazine. The story got a good response, but I still didn't see myself as a writer. I mean, coming from my background, you just don't think you're going to be anything like that.'
I ask John what he'd wanted to do when he grew up. He laughs. 'I wanted to be a wino! No, only joking- I just wanted to survive until the next pay day- you didn't really expect anything else. Anyway, at the time I was doing a bit of gardening for the posh people. I used to look in their libraries when it was raining, and I thought, "I can do as well as this." So for nine months I had this book without a title. Then I thought about this word, arena.'
Although John claims the book is not specifically about homelessness, it is surely no coincidence that its characters are all sleeping rough. I put to John my theory about the attractions of the lifestyle, with its complete lack of responsibility, also known by those in prison. John agrees.
'That's a good point. And at first it all seemed like a big party. I thought I could leave the streets anytime. I only realised I was trapped when it was too late. It's a bit like the cuckoo's nest (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a favourite novel). A bloke goes in there, he thinks he's only in for a month, and he only finds out he can't leave until it's too late. But the thing is, I accepted that life, because I didn't have any grandiose ideas about getting out. And I had a lot of friends there. They were like family. Sure, a family of psychos maybe, but still a family.'
In this Postmodern world, where so many of us feel cast adrift, the problem of identity is a central one. Many of us live in different towns from our families, who may themselves have come from elsewhere. There is little sense of family, religion, work security or even nationality with which we can easily identify. John believes this is not a bad thing. Growing up in North London of Irish stock, he was frequently bullied for being a paddy, a Mick; yet, when he returned to Ireland, he was perceived as a Brit:'The Irish thing is kind of schizophrenic, yes. It's the adults who put these ideas in your head, of nationhood. It's a problem of identity, not race- for me, to identify with anything is a problem. If I go round saying "I am an author/ poet/ chess player", that's where the problems begin. We are all individuals.'
*
Grey mist slopes in from the sea, haunting the beach with spectral fingers. For one moment I can taste the morning, the watery sun, the salt infected breeze; then I fall back, and I'm sitting on a damp bench in the Underground. Underground but in the open: rain falls from the dusky sky. I'm tired and going home. Someone slumps beside me like a sack of dead meat. I don't look, keeps examining the dull poster on the station wall. Plan for your retirement, numbers in lines. Then there's a tap on my arm, slurred London voice, alcohol:
-'Scuse me mate, you got a fag?
I turn on a boy of twenty, whose teeth are points as if filed like some tribal custom. There is a ring of clotted blood on the boy's lips, the makeup of a vampire. The boy stinks of piss and carries a can of Tennant's. By his side, an orange sack of Big Issues. Fresh from the ocean breeze, I try to withhold judgement.
-Sorry mate, don't smoke.
-Bollocks.
The boy starts tapping my pockets. I push him gently away.
-See! What's that in yer pocket! Fags!
-It's my wallet.
The boy staggers uneasily to his feet, and shouts at a woman on the opposing platform.
-Got a fag, love?
She shakes her head, never looking. The boy yells, top of his voice:
-Who's got a fucking fag? You fucking cunts! I just want a fucking fag!
He slumps, half dead, dribbles as he glares at me. After taking off his coat and screwing it into a ball, he sticks out a hand.
-My name's Paul.
They shake. Cold pissy hand.
-Mark.
-Have yer got a fucking fag?
-What happened to you?
-Some Italian bastard, stole my pitch, so I hit him. Cunt. It's not right, coming over here. You don't know what it's like, to be poor.
-I was there, once.
-You don't know what it's like. Have you got a fag?
In comes the Brighton train. I get to my feet.
-Where's this train going?
-Brighton.
The youth picks up his sack of booty and follows me onboard, where he falls asleep. As he leans over into the corridor, somehow his can stays at ninety degrees, like a lifeboat. Taking the boy's coat, I make a pillow and push the boy over onto the seat. The boy wakes up.
-What the fuck you doing! Lave me alone! Can't have me coat! Have yer got a fag?
-I don't smoke.
Watching the battered boy sleep, drool slopping from his mouth, I think of the ocean. I think of long haired horses, fishing boats, and women in the dunes. I count out some change, all I have, but there's no pocket to slip it into so I think: fuck it. At London Bridge I get to my feet. The boy wakes up.
-Where the fuck are we going!
-Brighton.
-Fuck! You cunt! Brighton? You cunt!
The boy gets to his feet and follows me off the train. A steward is trying to put a ramp up to the deck, to push his trolley of coffee and sandwiches on board. The boy gets in his way. The man shouts: -Out the way! You fucking cunt! Out my way or I'll fucking kill you! The boy argues: -what's your problem pal? The steward rams his trolley up the little ramp and onto the train. Bottles rattle. The boy staggers about on the grimy platform, his sack of magazines forgotten. The steward stands on the train and gives the boy the finger, saying: -You fucking little cunt! The boy wanders off. The train leaves.
I lean against a newspaper booth and waits for my connection, knackered from the job, thinking about bills and the cruelties of the woman I love. Wishing I could just walk off, forget all the juggling. A gang of youths are waiting for the carnival train, talking in loud voices about cutting people with knives. A middle aged man with spectacles waits by the toilets. A football supporter with a shirt tied round his waist staggers past. There is no sign of the train. After a while, the boy comes over. Somewhere along the way he has lost his sack of Big Issues, which he has already paid for.
-'Scuse me pal, got a fag?
I give up and give him a cigarette. Blood smears on the filter. I think of waves washing in from the sea.
*
The AGM of the King's Cross Homeless project. A lot smarter than the Simon place, with four well dressed professionals on the stage, free food and (non-alcoholic) drink, a portrait of Diana. I get talking to Paddy, an Irishman in his fifties.
'I came over in '64, from Galway. I lived with this woman here, but it was stormy and she ended up getting an injunction, and I did two weeks in Brixton. It was a good laugh actually. I ended up on the streets then for years, till I got a room in a hostel in King's Cross. It's a grand place, though I haven't got a telly. I'm three points off getting a council flat so I'm pleading with them at the moment. I'm fine where I am till after Christmas. They (Camden Council) offered me mate a flat, but that was because he has cancer. The silly sod turned it down because it was only a studio (bedsit). I think he's mad. It would have been a flat for life.'
Lots of nice suits up on the stage, going through the accounts: numbers underlined, a success story, and Diana smiles approvingly from the wall. Even the question time is dull, without incident, clean and sterile and self-congratulatory, until up goes a hand.
'Can you answer a question?'
It's Paddy with the voice.
'Yes, Paddy?'
The smart woman, the Harriet Harmon clone, obviously knows him and smiles tolerantly.
'Why is it,' says Paddy, 'Don't get me wrong, I'm not meaning anything like- but why is it, that people who've lived in this country for donkey's years can't get a flat, and there's others that turn up and get a flat? Can you answer me that?'
Awkward silence. Harriet's face falls. She goes into along, rambling politician's monologue which lulls you as it gets further and further away from an answer. But Paddy's much too smart for all that flannel.
'Now hang on a minute. Will you not answer me question?'
She is flushing furiously and stutters on. Eventually Paddy is hammered down by words. When the Slovakian gypsy family sing and dance he claps loudest of all. He should read the broadsheets, then he'd learn: about taking away all refugees benefits, about where they're going, where they've been.
*
Beneath a bridge in London Bridge I find Sharkey, a friendly young man from Bolton. The last time I saw Sharkey was at the thirtieth anniversary of Crisis at the Globe Theatre, when he had long hair and attempted to make a speech, but was so pissed on wine he gave up. Sharkey shakes me and Martin cheerily by the hand, offers us a swig of Spesh (Special Brew), and tells us his story.
'I was a military policeman me, really enjoyed meself. But when I came out I wasn't sure what to do with meself, so I drifted. Me mum and dad are quite well off, he's on the board of directors at (a top supermarket chain) and she's pretty high up as well. Me brother's in charge of security at a magistrates court, but we don't get along.
'I nicked a car up in Edinburgh and drove it to Newcastle, they brought me back to Scotland cos they have different laws up there, so I gave them me brother's name and they went to where he worked and arrested him, he hasn't really forgiven me. I'm trying to get the money to go up and see me family for Christmas, hopefully it'll be alright.
'I got this council flat with Rachel, we were both on the streets, but then I was up in Camden, do you know that cemetery they turned into a park? Right, and met this girl and we just clicked and so I went back to her place, and I went back the next day and Rachel flipped, can't really blame her, so she went back home to Somerset, I don't hear from her anymore.
'So here I am again, I live behind that skip over there, and I'm off the smack now have been for a year, don't touch the stuffs since Ian died. I feel sort of responsible for his death, there was this guy up West who was selling his prescription for meth(adone), but it was getting kind of heavy so I brought him back to the flat and Ian took some, and we found him dead, three died in a two week stretch, it was a bad time, and Ian's mates came round looking for me with a baseball bat, see this- (Sharkey pull sup his sleeve to reveal a misshapen lumpy forearm) 'that's where they were battering me with the bat, I put the arm up for protection, broke me arm they did, didn't go to the hospital though, not since on time I went in there and a nurse snapped a needle in me arm, I mean, I'm not scared of using needles meself, I was shooting up for ages, when I went in for me last HIV test the doctor went to take me blood and I said leave it to me, doc, so I took the tourniquet and put it in meself, you should've seen the look he gave me, oh yeah, I'm HIV positive, but I'm not bothered, it's just karma, I just want to see me family one last time and then I don't care if I get hit by a bus, I'm going to be a grandad by the way, me daughter up in Cumbria, who'd have thought it, thirty years old and a grandad...'
And so on. There is no tone of bravado or swagger in Sharkey's voice; nothing to indicate he is even exaggerating. He is bright, funny, intelligent and likeable, and I hope he makes it. The way he drinks, though, and with his attitude and his illness, his steadfast refusal to take preventative combinations of drugs for his infection because he believes he deserves it, I doubt it. On he goes, all in a rush, as if he has spoken to nobody for years:
'I know it's rotten right, but I think it was Rachel I got infected off, but she won't go for a test, and the way I see it if I don't start taking the drugs I haven't really got it, see what I mean? Life's not too bad at present, this morning I had eleven quid and had a big fry up breakfast, and yesterday some bloke gave me a bottle of champagne, the cork hit the roof of the bridge, and I can't remember much after drinking half of it...'
Leaving Sharkey we make our way to Southwark Street hostel. Outside a young Scottish girl with a can in her hand is crying. The reason is obvious: she has a huge black eye, with a purple inner ring surrounding bloodshot eyes. The outer bruising, though faint, is still visible. Some of the residents are consoling her, saying they'll kill the bloke (her boyfriend) who did it.
Inside, there's an air of calm: volunteers and full- time workers sit in a warm office, monitoring the close- circuit monitors; down in the day room there are constant sandwiches and three hot meals a day, a wide-screen TV and pool; upstairs a women's only floor, a detox unit, showers and rooms, singles and doubles for couples. Remembering some crap jobs I've done, some of the places I've lived and gone hungry, I feel an unreasonable surge of resentment.
*
A cold, wet Thursday, the day before Christmas Eve. That condemned carbuncle, the South Bank. Little girls in velvet dresses wait patiently to attend the opera. In the Standard there is a story about a homeless woman at Finsbury Park station, carried out by officials and thrown in the garbage. The accompanying pictures show an anonymous huddle in a sleeping bag being held aloft by two joking Railtrack officials, her only possession a crutch waving helplessly at her side like some character from a Beckett play.
It is a cold night, and her body doesn't stand out much from the piles of rubbish all around her. She is simply a shadow, a mystery which no-one seems to want to solve. With a story, a thousand stories: like the old Portuguese guy who begs at the South Bank centre who decided one day to ride his bike from South Africa to London, and did. Beneath the bridge sits Sharkey again, still laughing and shivering, resigned to the fact he won't be going home for Christmas after all:
'I asked that Colleen for the money but she wouldn't give it, so now it looks like I'll be stuck here all Christmas. Hey, you wouldn't believe what just happened. Some bloke was hanging about over there, at the end of the tunnel, and I thought, Aye Aye, and after about an hour and a half he comes over, asks if he can feel me balls for a tenner! I couldn't believe it at first, I said to him, 'do what?' and he says it again, so I get up and hit him. Cheeky bastard, I may be down but I'm not out.'
Two friends of Sharkey's, an Irish boy and a Scottish girl, come over and watch us warily. The boy is pissed, and asks us for money. We refuse. Then he sees the sleeping bag Martin is carrying around in preparation for a Christmas sleeping in the hostels.
'Give us your sleeping bag.' (It cost around four hundred pounds.)
'No way.'
The boy shrugs, his own worst enemy, and we go off to Southwark Street. Once again I become irritated at the held out hand, the lack of barter, the 'I want' mentality. I think about all the millions who work their arses off every day and haven't enough money left to eat properly, or have a drink now and again, and then I reproach myself for resenting the lifestyle of a sub-group whose life expectancy is shorter than in Sub- Saharan Africa.
These confused feelings, this angry ambivalence, faces workers in hostels and drop-in centres every day, yet they seem to have endless resources of patience and understanding. Colleen is a burst of Belfast energy, scruffy and tomboyish and charmingly proud of her mobile phone. Without exception, everyone in the place loves her. She meets hundreds of people every week, yet she remembers me from the Crisis do almost a year previously.
Terry from Poplar is twenty four, homeless (or living in the hostel, sharing with a madman) and a junkie. In the ground floor meeting room we talk about his options, where he wants a council place. Archway seems a good bet; Archway, the place I'd always wanted to escape from, he sees as a step up. He tells me about residents who have died in the last year, mainly o.d.'d. With him in the day room watching the usual afternoon garbage on a huge new television is Crystal, who was the subject of a documentary called Decent Scum last year, when she and her then boyfriend were taken back to his family home in Scotland:
'We split up soon after, he was a bit of a nutter, so I came back down and went back on the streets. The BBC gave me fifty quid a day expenses, but sometimes they wanted to start filming at seven in the morning, which was a bit much.' Later I will read her ex, Tom, has become a chic model, mixing with the hoi polloi. Terry and Crystal go upstairs to shoot up. When they come back they drift happily. The old tramp with the crutches never wakes up. Patrick, one of the volunteer workers, a young black guy from Camberwell, tells me about another resident, Jackie. She's a transsexual prostitute and subject of another BBC docu- soap.
Patrick likes working at the hostel, the residents respect him because he's from the street. 'I was just walking through Soho one day and saw all these kids sleeping out, and I just thought I had to do something to help. I work here six months of the year, I love it.'
Downstairs is the kitchen, another TV, and a wonderful mural depicting life on the street, with Tony Blair as a blue devil: a Tory in disguise. Here we meet Steel, who journalist Linda Grant wrote about in a Guardian feature some years back. Steel is fortyish, with a wild grey beard and a can in his hand. Lisa from Essex is young, shy and cute. A young black girl sleeps off the drugs. Andy and Geordie Tom cook spaghetti bolognaise. They don't like the young black girl for some reason. Nevertheless, without any show, we notice them wander over to check her pulse occasionally. The spag bol is delicious. So is the veggie curry and salad. I go for more, and Tom eagerly serves me some more. It is warm and friendly. Everyone has a tale to tell. Steel:
'I have no national insurance number. no I.D. of any kind. I was born in the travelling community. I can't sign on. So I make my living from music. I used to do the clubs up North. Now I busk off Leicester Square. I'm saving up for a new amp. Today they offered me and Mark (his mate, chronic alcoholic) a Peabody flat. I haven't been to see it yet, probably won't till the day I move in. I used to have loads of gear (musical instruments) but it all got nicked from my van one night, so that was that. I don't remember much about that article, all I do remember is that it was a bit more positive about me than about the others. I'm worried about young Lisa here, she needs protecting.'
Lisa doesn't seem to want protecting.
'I'm twenty nine, and I've got six kids. Then last year me partner died. He was from Belfast, I used to live in the Falls. He's buried next to Giuseppe Conlon at Milltown. Then I got in with this other bloke and he knocked me about. You should see the bruises. Steel's seen them.' (Steel nods grimly). 'Now I can't go home. I can't even go near me mum's 'cos he hangs about outside. I want to see the kids at Christmas but I can't go near. I decided not to go into a refuge this time 'cos I wanted to stand on me own two feet. Trouble is here there's so much drugs around. I've tried smack a few times, it was lovely. No hangovers, nothing. I didn't inject it, just skinjabs. But I might take it again. Hard to believe really, I mean I'm from a good family.'
Lisa gives me some poems, one a witty ditty about the pro's and cons of various drugs, the other about her loneliness. Lisa is lost, and doesn't want Steel's paternal guidance, or worse. The boy who gave her the smack (as in drug) is in the rehab room watching a wildlife programme. He is slumped on a black leather sofa with several workers catering to his needs, free food and safety.
'I've lost seven stone in the past year,' muses Lisa downstairs. When the food is dished up she refuses it. When the news comes on and Peter Mandelson has resigned, everyone cheers. Steel tell me about a friend of his who had five degrees and was a headmaster at a London comprehensive until his wife and children died in a car crash. 'He got into the booze, he's chronic. I'm not so bad, just a few cans a day. I don't touch anything else, not even dope. It makes me violent.'
*
Johnny Dublin, thirty summat, once a winner of the ICA national playwright's competition but then homeless, an alcoholic:
JOHNNY: I was waiting for a train at Wembley Central the other day and I saw something on the track. I thought it was a bit of meat at first because there's a butcher's just over the wall. I even laughed and thought to myself, little bastards. Thought it was kids playing around. Then I saw something else, a sock, and realised it was a human leg. I looked closer and there
were all bits of body. Maybe they were pissed and fell asleep on the track, maybe
they done it on purpose. The ambulancemen were coming. I was off to the Irish
Centre to help out the homeless. You don't need to see that anytime, let alone
waiting for a train in the rain taking you to work. I read about someone last year who
went under a train. The authorities decided holding up all the trains would be too inconvenient, make everyone late for work, so they made the decision just to let the
trains full of commuters roll right over him for a few hours.
MARK: I was coming home from work the other night and as I went into the shop to buy a
frozen pizza and a bottle I saw the ambulance. They were picking up some guy off
the road. Looked like he was dead but you can never tell. Somehow when I see that I
always want to laugh. I once saw a guy shot in the head down Brixton Hill at this
garage but he was still alive. I didn't know what to do so I just paid for the petrol and drove away.
JOHNNY: The other night I went out with a woman who was lovely, perfect, into
horses, booze, books, the lot. At the end of the night she asked for my phone number and I just told her to fuck off. I don't know why. I'm so fucking
lonely.
*
Somerstown, tucked away between King's Cross and Euston and Camden Town, one of the poorest areas of Central London. There are problems here, gangs and drugs and violence, and New Horizons caters for sixteen to twenty one year olds. Like most youth centres there is table tennis and pool, house music blares and counselling and computer rooms. But there are also free clothes handouts and hot food, and kids from the surrounding estates are encouraged to go elsewhere, because this is for homeless youngsters like Vince and Dave, who readily agree to tell me about their lives.
'I'm just out of prison,' says Dave, a gangling eighteen year old with piercing eyes and an air of bravado. He wears a smart shirt and a clean pair of jeans, looking just like a Somerstown youth. 'I'm from the South West originally, lived with a foster family till I was sixteen. I was homeless down there for a while but there's nothing for you if you're homeless down there, so I came up to London. I slept rough last night, I had the chance to sleep in a bath in this hostel but I'm too tall, so I took a duvet and slept behind some pub. I had the chance to go in a hostel but I prefer to beg, you get more money if you're on the streets. I don't want to sell the Big Issue because it doesn't really suit my image. I don't want people to all know I'm homeless, I don't carry a sleeping bag around so I can still pull the birds. Only trouble is you've nowhere to take them, not unless you borrow a mate's place. When I get sorted I want to work as a volunteer with other homeless people. I like working with people.'
By way of contrast with Dave's street-wise suspicion, Vince is open and unguarded about his feelings. Well-built and pleasant, Vince is a polite and friendly twenty one year old from South West London. Vince originally left home for the same old reasons, repeated like a mantra all over the city (draw your own conclusions): he didn't get along with his family.
'First off I moved in with a load of mates in a great big house, there were twelve of us there but it didn't work out. I only really slept rough a few times, and I'm in a really good hostel now. Soon I'm getting a housing association flat, then I want to work as a doorman. To do that I need to get a license. I just want a normal life. The worst thing about being on the streets is literally not knowing what's around the corner. You might wake up and think, this is going to be a shit day; and then something wonderful happens. You just never know. It was all brand new to me, I didn't have a clue where to go or what to do. I'm glad Labour are in power but they haven't done as much as they could have done. I don't believe they should have bombed Iraq the other day. I suppose I just don't like war, especially when it's just to save Clinton's career. 'I'm going home for Christmas. I get on much better with mum and dad now I'm living out of home.'
Despite their experiences, both Dave and Vince seem relatively unblemished by the streets; the city hasn't fucked them over just yet. But it's a race against time, and it might not be long before the waving spikes become an irresistible temptation or the sleeping bag gets a kicking or worse. Workers like Sue are well aware of the pitfalls, and she does her best to insulate precocious youngsters against a cold hard world.
'What's the answer?' says Sue wearily, a bespectacled and patient thirty something. 'You can't solve anything by simply sticking these kids in tower blocks away from everything. You want to return to your support networks, the ones you found on the streets. Since they (the Tory government) did away with benefits to sixteen and seventeen year olds, what options do they have? It's so tempting to get into petty crime, and when you're caught you're more likely to be locked up because you can't give an address for your bail. The judge has the attitude that if you're NFA we'll have to lock you up.' And so the institutionalisation continues. 'A high percentage of the kids who I come into contact with are from care. You get to sixteen and then that's it, you're fixed up with a bed and breakfast and you're told to get on with it. They don't tell you how to use washing machines, how to cook an egg and beans.'
One of the most important aspects of New Horizon's work is its outreach, where it visits young people in their new flats and advises them on the best ways of paying their bills and other domestic matters. I ask Sue why it is that, unlike the stereotypical homeless, the young Northerners and the old Irish, so many of London's street people now seem to originate in the city.
'New Horizons (and similar organisations) mainly deals with London kids now for two main reasons. Firstly, kids up North have started to realise that the streets here aren't paved with gold, in fact it's a very hard place. Also other cities like Manchester and Glasgow are beginning to have their own support networks for the homeless. Second, kids who want to leave home in London simply can't afford it. Even the rent on a bedsit is way out of reach of most of them, especially when there's deposits to pay and so on.'
'Having New Labour in power makes no real difference to either the homeless or those who work with them. The New Deal doesn't really affect the homeless because it's very rare for a homeless young person to be signing on for six months at a stretch anyway.'
I put it to Sue that there will always be people who are on the peripheries, we just have to accept it, and accommodate our differences. Sue seems to agree.
'Homeless people are just like anyone else. New Horizons is just a normal youth centre, which happens to deal with homeless kids. When we know they're getting close to the age of twenty two we try and give them advice on what to do next. It can be a shock, if you've been coming here for two or three years, and suddenly that's it.'
You're out in the cold.
*
Sometimes I want to kick their heads in. It's bad enough being asked to buy the same Big Issue with pleading eyes, every ten steps; worse, the women with babies sat beside the cash machines, apparently confused as to why you don't just give them a crisp tenner. No, the worst ones simply ask you in passing: 'could you spare some money?' Sometimes they're better dressed than I am (which is, admittedly, not difficult). We all feel other emotions, naturally; pity, sadness, even envy, but anger is always there (I can only speak for myself). You're tired from work, the credit card company are on your back, the kids need new clothes and the interest rates have shot up a quarter of one percent, and there they are with their outstretched hand and a can of beer at eight in the morning. It's so easy; and, as if that wasn't bad enough, every huddled figure is a reminder of our own fragility, our tenuous position in the scheme of things.
Just as everyone on earth is only three meals from barbarism, so most of us are a month's pay cheque from the street. All that divides us and them. So who are the, these feckless drifters, dossers, knackers, nutters and scruffs? Why don't I go and find out, so you can stay right where you are? (why bother, you think; I know. I've read. I've seen. I've watched). Maybe then I'm wasting my time, and your money. But I don't think so. I have to know who they are, have to know what separates them from me and from you.
Come with me?
*
Outside the Christmas shelter in East Dulwich they gather round the old one, slumped unconscious against the fence and seeming barely alive. Some hoist him to his feet as others check the old bin liners in which he carries his belongings; a line from Ralph McTell (or the Anti-Nowhere League). Others sit on the steps drinking merrily from cans and bottles, the old West Indian sings happily to himself in the biting winter wind. You can't take booze inside and I am searched by a volunteer, a burly homeless guy acting as her unofficial minder. For some reason he has problems with the guy who goes in ahead of me, a harmless looking bespectacled guy, and shouts insulting words as the man makes his way through the wire fenced alley leading to the main building. The man turns, confused by the torrents of abuse, and moves out of my way with fear in his eyes, as if he has been a victim many times before.
The building is huge, some old warehouse or hangar, full of the homeless and the lonely and volunteers. There are stalls all around the room for holistic medicine, advice, free clothes and food and books (Jeffrey Archer, Russian medical encyclopaedias), chiropodists cut the dead bits of your feet away, and free entertainment. At either side of the hall banks of TVs blare out some Christmas films- ITV one side, BBC1 the other, the daily schedules taped to the walls, and long lines of people asleep beneath them.
Some wander dazed or drunk while others are alert to the seemingly endless possibilities of the place; some homeless are smart and volunteers scruffy, people greet each other with hugs and advice on where to go when the place closes tomorrow (the day before New Years' Eve), while others sit on chairs and stare into space. As I watch the entertainment an old guy from Manchester, Jamaica comes over for a chat.
'Women in England, man,' he moans, 'you just can't tell what they want. In Jamaica it's simple, they say 'you wan' it? Well it's me period so tough,' here you never know if they're interested.' Somehow I unwittingly manage to convince him that the medical centre distributes free condoms and away he goes, the optimist, fifty and grey and living in a hostel in the East End, but still with an eye on the ladies. 'I ask a volunteer man, she say no she have boyfriend, I never get rid of these.' He pulls out an old battered packet of condoms and I make a joke.
'How old are they, ten years?'
He laughs. 'I go back to Jamaica sometime, it's rough over there, I had two guns man, England is okay apart from the women. Bow is rough though, some tough cookies there.'
I tell him the best way to get into some posh pants is to get to meet their family. If their parents disapprove, you're in business. He is impressed with the notion and makes some plans. Someone comes along dishing out fags from a plastic cup. The entertainment is okay: a bald man sings a song about being a cabbie, some young local kids do a karaoke version of 'Stand By Me' by Oasis, and a pretty black girl called Cindy Jackson sings, rather obviously, 'I will survive.' She is doing well, despite the good natured barracking from a group of young drunks, but then she says the wrong thing:
'Listen, don't go giving the band a hard time, they don't have to do this you know, they could have stayed home in the warm and played computer football instead of coming here for you lot.' After that they pretty much ignore her. A Jewish comedian with a beard gets little respite, and the loudest of the crowd, a young lad called Jethro, gets more laughs with his somewhat risque jokes. Some watch the dancing queens from wheelchairs, others drift away to sleep, and a young kid next to me surreptitiously swigs Methadone from his bottle.
The toilets are clean and there are piles of free razors and soap and bog roll. Outside it is dark and colder still, and still they drink and dance and fight on the step. I have had enough and go to a pub. Later I meet friends at the Angel and go to a restaurant (not the best chicken I've ever had). And then, for some reason, I go back. telling myself that it's more of a laugh than going home.
At London Bridge I meet Andy, a thirty one year old in a smart suit who turns out to be a smack head from Somerstown. Andy, of Moroccan appearance and razor sharp, asks me how to get to East Dulwich. A friendly guard tell us we've missed the last train, and advises us to go to Sydenham and walk. Like mugs, we do.
'I got sixty grand compensation for a car accident,' Andy tells me. 'This car hit me and dragged me long the road. It was bad news. I invested the money wisely, I've still got twenty grand in a high interest account. The trouble is I can't touch it so I'm penniless at the moment. I lived up in Norfolk for seven years, had a nice house with me bird up there and everything. But it was a bit quiet, and the local cops got to know me. I was a one-man crime wave, to feed me habit. I just can't leave the smack alone, I've tried, believe me. It's just always there, so tempting. I've just been to see me mum but I can't stay there, so I've been staying here all week. Where is the fucking place?'
It's a long way from Sydenham to East Dulwich at the best of times, let alone in the middle of a cold night. Andy stops a few times to examine piles of rubbish. In one, the result of an office clear-out, he finds some decent framed pictures and empty box files, and puts them in his bag.
Finally we make it. Andy disappears into the washrooms for a shower, and I arrange to meet him upstairs. The 'wide awake club,' as it is called, is a scruffy television room which stays open all night. People slump asleep, or watch the football (strictly Nationwide), or argue in foreign languages. As elsewhere, the largest percentage seem to be Scottish, of all ages. Volunteers hand out a steady supply of tea and coffee. They are friendly and bright, and I drink hot coffee full of sugar. Andy doesn't come back. Next to me a smelly guy with a greasy beard slumps. His friend tries to wake him.
'Mark! Wake up man... Mark!' The man doesn't stir, and his friend shakes harder. A part of me wonders if he's dead, and start wording it into my story. The man looks at me. 'He's me fucking brother man, I have to go find me mate and I'll come back... will you tell him?'
'Tell him what?'
'If he wakes up, tell him to stay here until I get back. His name's Mark.'
'So is mine.'
The man wanders off and I don't see him again. Mark stirs in his sleep, or hangover, or from gouching out whatever. He has a name now, and I am relieved. A young Geordie guy with a quick tongue teases the volunteers behind the hot food counter, especially the women who giggle. A young Asian kid comes over to sit down. He peers at me curiously.
'Oh- sorry. I thought you was one of the workers for a minute.'
'You must be joking mate.' I try not to sound too offended. Maybe he was. His mates come over and sit down too, and start talking about their lives: South London, racism, crap jobs and families, bewilderment at the future.
Later I go down to the main hall. Hundreds of sleeping bags are stretched out in straggly rows like grubs in a nursery. Mostly it is quiet, but every now and then someone snores or mumbles or shouts. To say there are literally hundreds here, the peace is remarkable. Unwilling to take up a valuable bed, or have someone accuse me of taking theirs, I sit on an uncomfortable plastic chair. No-one seems to need the orange blanket dumped beneath the crash barrier behind me so I put it over my head to keep out the cold. It doesn't work and I shiver for a couple of hours, listening to the sounds of the night, pretending I'm the Holloway Hemingway and failing.
I am awoken by an argument between a Jock and a Cockney.
'Fuckin' wake up ya cants!' shouts the Jock.
'Shut yer fuckin' mouth, yer noisy bastard!'
'An' you an' all, yer fucker.'
'Come 'ere and say that, yer cant!'
Bored and cold I take a piss and go back to the wide awake club. It is around six in the morning, I must have slept for a while after all. The room is the same as before, except the queue for the hot drinks is longer. I find a seat and slump with my coffee. After an interminable programme devoted to early morning finance, bringing back angry memories of 'Dawn Trader' on LBC back in the boom years of the Eighties, the Tellytubbies comes on and everyone groans. An old London guy, glasses and straight back like an old soldier, points to someone in the corner of the room.
'Pervert alert, mind yer fucking backs. There's a child molester over there who won't be waking up one of these mornings.'
I can't help but glance at the young man in the corner, who looks blankly into space with fear in his eyes. The old man continues.
'Fuckin' child molester in the corner gonna get his throat cut any day now, very soon.'
Nearly everyone does their best to ignore him, and even the molester watches Tellytubbies. For some unfathomable reason my heart hurts for this lonely man, even though so many times I've heard about the consequences of his selfish actions. Then the young kids come on in the real bit of Tellytubbies and everyone goes a bit quiet. Maybe they have kids of their own. After the Tellytubbies they have some strange dinosaur cartoon. The word whispers round:
'Closing today...' 'Twelve o'clock...' 'No, ten...' 'Where you going?'
At eight the hot drinks place packs up and I wander back downstairs. Old men sit slumped, a variety of emotions on their faces. In the washrooms people are grabbing toiletries and taking a last shower before the open road. I think that's what I'd hate most, not having a shower or a hot bath. There is a murky light outside, cloudy and ready for rain. In the main hall people are packing away their things, saying goodbyes, hugging, swapping advice and addresses. Over the tannoy every few minutes come messages: 'Anyone leaving for Victoria please wait outside the main gate...' 'Victoria bus leaving in five minutes...' 'Anyone else for Victoria...'
I see the comedian, Jethro, making his exit in somebody's wheelchair. A few minutes later someone wheels it back empty. A load of obvious students in clean clothes, nice young girls from somewhere, wander around in a crocodile. As they pass one scruffy traveller with his straggly beard he sticks up two fingers with a straight face. They colour and hurry past and I have to laugh.
Tension rises as time passes. Slowly all the clocks move towards ten. Some people look angry: why throw them out the day before New Years' Eve? In the yard the volunteers and homeless mill about. It's all over.
'Don't forget your bag,' a volunteer kindly tells me.
'I haven't got one.'
'You must get one! Over there, they're free!'
Then I realise he is talking about sleeping bags, which are being thrown in great numbers over the fence.
'Some of them are taking a bag then hiding them and coming back for another one!' says a volunteer or worker, panic stricken. Do you blame them? I go to East Dulwich station and wait for a train in the rain. A few from the shelter stagger up too with bulky bags and packages. On the train two of them, a young boy and girl, smile shyly and sit next to each other, strangers united by a common cause. At Peckham I leave the train, hoping that something will blossom between them like a banyan tree.
*
Fire jugglers at Piccadilly, yellow flames echo through the cold empty night, spinning catherine wheels of hissing colour, dancing in the rain, barely touching the flickering hands of the dirt-streaked juggler with the nest of dreadlocks, flared fire so bright that all the electric hoardings suddenly fade away, and for a fraction of time the city goes silent, the tableaux freezes like the photograph of Omagh before the explosion, white burnt- out Hiroshima shadows pose for the camera as the red car sits waiting and he is gone.
Flames hissing and smoking in the dirty rain, tourists gawp and old men prowl round Eros for young chickens who use Burger King toilets to freshen up after sordid sex. No-one cares, huddles of blankets and snapping cameras, a woman aims her camcorder so I raise two fingers, not at all peaceful, she frowns bemused so I stick out my tongue. All midnight cowboys with shadowy eyes, fallen heroes with grudging souls, Ted Hughes dies and there are hamburgers in the street polythene plasticine plastic calendars wipe them dry.
Down rain-soaked steps I go, the yellow lights splashing, warm smiles and the Guinness is good, here comes Johnny Dublin, heartbroken again, torn between women of Ireland and Brazil and an unfickle mistress called booze who never lets him down, he keeps on trying but all he's doing is dying before his time which gets no closer on the eventful horizon the black carpet carved into shape by a criss-cross of green timelines with nothing to measure them by just fly back in time to Brighton, I'm on e and charlie and weed and the cans flow as the game goes, my fire juggling friend plays the games, lost in an electronic world, Lara Croft woman of the world, s/he dies a hundred times as his woman wobbles on her crutches, a prisoner of the first floor and smiles shy wiles and everyone floats down to the sofa but I went somewhere else and sometimes when I stray down that road there's little incentive to return.
Johnny walks through the door, London is a puzzle not only Chinatown but Acton Town and Plumstead Green it's all around. Get real for fucks' sake, my liver expands as my knowledge contracts. I glance up at the Saturday afternoon box: Crown Green Bowls on Grandstand, yet for one second as I glimpsed at the screen I thought it was a model of some foreign solar system. They closed down the radar centre in the States which was monitoring for signs of alien intelligence and you know what they put in its place? A golf course. Space man. Put the balls in your naval army where you train dolphins to carry mines, while in Russian zoos sit monkeys addicted to daytime soaps.
'I met an old bloke the other day,' says Johnny, 'who came from the Shetlands. He told me about this ship of local lads in the war which made it home and all the folks were waiting in the harbour, women, wives and children, mums and sisters and men too, and the ship struck something and sank. They all died, hundreds of them, while the women and the bunting waited.'
When Johnny tells me about this I remember Raasay and an old car waiting for the rusty ferry one rainy spring Saturday night two boys in the front two girls in the back passing around a bottle of whiskey oblivious to the steaming hills hiding moose and a hundred tartan army ghosts, oblivious to the sea otters and seaweed and Golden Eagles soaring- the next day I found a dead seal on a pebble- battered beach, a neat bullet hole through its freckled forehead, asleep. This book is not journalism, reportage, a log- it's art. From a radar looking for alien life to a golf course- Putt the balls in your naval army. Dolphins trained to carry mines, and chimps addicted to Santa Barbara. Why not drink?
*
When you drift round the City like a psycho geographer or a Ranter for any length of time each street is a friend or foe or usually both, each bag of bricks resounds to the crunch of music and screams, every corner is love and fear, shops sell flowers for weddings and for funerals, the tarmac all rainbow whale oil and sick, lying to the gutter and looking at the scars.
Take Euston. Once it was just a destination, then a place to sleep, with all the suits in a Fisher King waltz, then later there we flushed our child into the sewers for its ghostly screams to echo into eternity, and there I took the old dosser who I found in York Way. If you ever doubted the sentient nature of the City, stand on a corner and close your eyes, take a breath, inhale (not like Clinton), wash out your ears, and feel.
The other night I went back to Clerkenwell and wandered its dripping streets, and as I wandered I cried for the past, for suicide and love, alcohol and blood, friends and violence, and wondered why.
Someone very close to me who I watched die always said something really bad happened at The Archway, the place feels like it was a massacre once, and walls can retain feeling and sound. Lots of bad things happened at the Archway, and at the Bullring someone got torched in their bash because they didn't fit in. I went back there with Martin, and with Alan, and there were all these people huddled on the steps of the church, as close as they could get to the Bullring, the urban Dreamtime tribe at their spiritual home, now a brave circle of New Labour glass, showing films about homelessness. This is your brave new world, a little dome, with people on the outside, Hopper's Nighthawks all: no better, no worse, just different, just the same.

© Mark Liam Piggott 2002
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