Thursday, 12 February 2009

London speaks to me finally

We gathered in front of the McDonald's next to Charing Cross station and set off around 7. We were armed with brand new sleeping bags, brand new socks and gloves, and lots of sandwiches.

"How come the organiser isn't here!" I said to everyone. The organiser of the meet-up was herself absent, and there was a lot of initial confusion as to division of work and groups.

No one replied.

I went with John, who was more experienced than I in this sort of thing. "I like your curiosity, mate," John told me, as soon as we set off.

We stopped at a corner on The Strand (in front of the Zimbabwe embassy) where lots of homeless people congregated. As soon as it became apparent we were giving things away, they descended on us. John tried talking to some as he handed out sandwiches. I gave out all the gloves. Then all the socks. John motioned me to go.

"That's the trouble with East Europeans," he said. "They tend to circle you and take everything."

"A lot of people question the point of what we're doing. Say they're all a bunch of lay-abouts. It's a real dilemma, mate. I mean, I can't fucking work it out, do y'know w'I mean?" John said.

He said he wanted to stop off at Covent Garden. When we got to the market square area (normally considered a nice, pretty spot), he told me, "I fuckin' hate this place. I hate how they've commercialised it." We stopped in front of two homeless people, both 40+. A man and a woman. English.

"Afraid we've only got chicken sandwiches," John told them.

"Only chicken! Only chicken! Only!" the big man guffawed. "I'll have your chicken then," he told us.

They took lovely Pret a Manger chicken sandwiches. I offered some chocolate-covered cake-rolls, but the big guy said he has diabetes. We gave them the only pair of socks remaining. John rested alongside the big man and puffed on his roll.

"So, what do you think, how do you feel?" John said.

"I'll tell you what I feel. I feel my goverment has betrayed me. I tell you who I respect. The Christians. I am 57. 25 years on the streets. The Christians have been feeding me. They're the only real, kind people in this business," the big man said.

"It's a fucking business, that what's it is. The homeless business. It's big fucking money. They're making money off us," said the woman, who was clearly the big man's wife.

"That bloody Jacqui Smith [Home Secretary]. I'll tell you something about her. 770 grand, is what she made last year. I read that in the paper," the big man said.

"Yeah, I read that too. It's a disgrace innit," John said.

"The fucking bloody head of [some major homeless organisation], he drives a Mezarati. He walks around, he talks to a few people, drives fucking off in a Mezarati," he says.

"Country's going to the dogs," she says.

"It's not going, it's gone. This government, not just this one, the past bloody ten governments, for the last fifty years, what ave I got out of 'em? Nish. Nuffin," he says.

"They just bloody give it to the foreigners," she says.

"Yeah, I noticed a lot of Eastern Europeans up there on the Strand," John said. He was deeply engrossed, happily sucking away at roll after roll.

"They're all bloody Polish. I never set foot there. I stopped. I fucking go mad. They've taken over the streets. Our streets. And they bloody get everything. The government gives them everything. Our government asks them 'oh sweetheart, do you need a place to live do you?' and hands them out everything!" the man said.

"It's not our country any more," she said.

"I'm not racist," he says, "I am happy if foreign people come to my country. But me first. Not 'em. What have I got for my parents' hard work? My father worked for this country, he paid his taxes. So did my mum," he said.

"It's not right," I said.

"No, it ain't bloody right. They just want us to die. They're just waiting for us to die off, is what my government wants" he said.

"What's your trade?" said John.

"I used to be a builder. And a good one too. But I fell behind. Went off the mainstream. And that's it. It's like you're shunted off on to a side road, and you can't ever get back on to the main road. There's no exit. My exit is my death. I am just waiting to die. I am 57. Do you know what I mean?"

"Three more years, and they'll take you in. They have to," John said.

"We had Brian. Lived off the streets forty years. They took him in. He died two years later. He lived on the street forty years, as soon as they took him in, he went," the wife said.

"Wasn't used to the warmth, I'll bet," John said.

"No, it's not that. It's the hassle. The paperwork. The constant questioning. He lost his freedom," the man said.

"But if they give the foreigners flats, why can't you take one too?" I said.

"I tell you why. They give a Pole a bloody shithole, and he goes thank-you, sir, and he bloody lives in the shithole. You give me a shithole, I can't live in it. Give me a decent place, I make it better, I make it my shithole."

And it went on.

For almost half an hour the man and his wife regaled us with their version of the story: they had been done in by their government. Their own government had refused to help them. Instead, their government had helped people from outside. Their government had given them raw deals which they had to accept, but they're not like the foreigners and they won't accept any rubbish. They needed genuine taking care of, real assistance, not meagre hand-outs and a judgemental attitude. It's no wonder they've turned alcoholic, they say, they're so upset.

"I am not suicidal. Not at all. Just cos I'm saying this stuff, don't mean I wanna kill myself. I love life. I love life. Do you understand me? I am just unhappy, that's all. The British people they're only concerned with money. Got wonga? Yes sir. Got nish? Fuck off. And that ain't right," the man said.

"It's not going to get fixed either," the woman said.

"Not even two generations can fix it," the man said.

John had disappeared for a while, and after he returned he explained that a friend is on his way. Five minutes later, Luke appeared.

Luke was sucked in right away. He listened attentively and tried to query the man on some details.

John declared us ready to go.

We walked off in a big huff of "God bless you"s from the man and his wife.

Luke then asked John how things were.

John told him, "Been rolling too many. Fucking stoned out of my wits. Need a drink. Going to the pub. Right, Ahmed?"

I was dumbstruck. John had been stoned from the second I first saw him! That explained why he had seemed a little in his world, a little cool and collected, a little smiley.

On the way to the pub, I learnt that Luke - who is around 24 - is training to be a journalist. Later, I was to learn that he writes very powerful pieces about the homeless in small rags. John is 30ish. He freelances in IT. But talking to him about his work, I was a little confused how he manages to pass himself off as an expert.

Just before we got to the Old Vic Theatre, on our way to the pub, Luke - I suppose trying to bridge the gap between his age and mine - asked if I am married. I said I had been, but no longer. He was intrigued. I gave them a brief synopsis. "Where was she from?" they asked. I said America. Whereabouts, they asked. Arkansas originally, I said. They snickered. Then John told me he'd been married to an American too. A New Yorker from Brooklyn. Jewish. They used to get high all the time. She accused him of abuse, and he can't forgive her for lying. Now he's divorced.

"We've got something that bonds us, mate," he said, and fist-bumped me.

Everyone came to the pub. There was none of the usual meet-up bullshit: cliques and attitudes. We were trying to genuinely connect; I guess that's the attitude I went with.

The organiser - who had turned out to be doing a different route - is dusting off a PhD in sociology. She told me how, in the past, they'd invited some homeless people to the pub with them. "The amazing thing is, inside the pub, they're transformed to perfectly quote normal unquote people. A real pleasure to talk to. Then after we'd finished and we're going home, they stepped outside and sat on the floor. And that's when we realised ... Such an academic, intellectual point to make," she said apologetically.

I stood outside the pub with Luke and John (where, presumably, John was continuing his quest for altitude), and we reflected on what the 57 year old man had told us. Luke was of the opinion that attitude plays a crucial part; he emphasised the importance of thinking positively. The three of us agreed that the homeless had given in to their bitterness, had convinced themselves all was doomed.

I brought up the man's pronouncement: "I love life". He definitely did, I said. There was no mistaking it.

On the way back home, I realised that for the first time - possibly - I had met an Englishman who spoke from the heart, with that unmistakable inner poetry and fluency of mankind. Egypt is full of these people; but most English people are reserved, and they don't speak from the heart.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

People always like to think they are "nice" or a "kind" person. But these same people just walk past homeless people/beggers or big issue sellers without even acknowledging their existence. How nice of a person is that? I always say " sorry mate i got no change" etc and 9/10 i get a "thanks " or "have a nice day" because they've been ignored all day and i'm probably one of a few people that has acknowleged their being in the world. Its nasty when humans are just painted as "issues" because if you dont care about that particular issue you dont care about all the humans under it. :(

Good post.

It made me think weither my english friends have an inner barrier when expressing themselves unlike my other ethnic friends. Mmmmmm .....