We were down in Cornwall last month, and in a bookshop in St Ives, my wife came across a book in the ‘local author’ section, exclaiming “you’re always going on about writing something to compare and contrast Orwell’s book with rough sleeping today – look at this!”. ‘This’ was ‘No Fixed Abode’, by Charlie Carroll, a teacher by profession, who had decided to follow in the footsteps of George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”, to see what rough sleeping was like in 2011. Not literally in his footsteps – this would be a walk from Sennen Cove in Cornwall to London. Clearly, I had to read this.
I was not to be disappointed. It is a well-written book, recording Charlie’s own findings and feelings, and also those of the ‘full-time’ rough sleepers he meets. He is honest about the points where his ‘house left behind, and some money available’ circumstances differ from those he meets, and the moments when he takes very much softer options (for example staying with friends in Portishead and in Hackney, albeit ‘sofa surfing’). There are some very uncomfortable moments to read, about bullying and harassment encountered along the way. And an unexpected cameo from Jeremy Paxman… And much of it resonated with me as he describes parts of Bristol and London which I know well, and at some point he will have passed through where I was working in Great Bedwyn. And had he taken the A4 instead, he might well have become a guest-in-passing at Doorway.
But the book grabbed me with a jolt in Chapter 2, when Charlie is attempting to rest up on the beach at Mawgan Porth, five miles northeast of Newquay. A place I know well, having enjoyed a number of holidays there when my daughters were little. Charlie’s experience was rather different:
“It was already mid-afternoon by the time I reached Mawgan Porth; the clouds had cleared, the sun blazed, and so did my feet…..I resolved to eat and rest a while before making camp a few miles along the cliffs.
Mawgan Porth was a cavernous beach, the steep valley sides ensnaring the heat so that it felt as if flames licked across the sand. The bars and cafes, the single pub, were filled with tourists……..
It was quietest at the northern end of the beach…… I weaved through the windbreaks and deckchairs, the surf schools and semi-naked septuagenarians, to the privacy of the far corner, where I stretched out on my bed of soft, hot sand. With no wind, I cooked quickly and then, feeling drowsy, lay back with my book, asleep in minutes.
I believe I slept for over an hour….. When I opened [my eyes] again, three men stood over me.
They each looked no older than twenty…… They were drinking and they were drunk; cans of lager poked out of pockets and dribbled from hands. One dangled my camping stove, which I had forgotten to pack away, over my face.
“How much for this?” he asked. I stared at the silhouette of the head, trying hard to discern his features against the bright sky……
“It’s not for sale”, I said, pulling myself to my feet. I was taller than each of them, but, though they were lean, there was a look of self-confidence in their eyes which I did not like.
“Come on, mate, we’ll give you a good price,” another said. I knew their accents. They were not tourists, but local boys…..“No, thanks,” I said, reaching out to take the stove.
The man holding it stepped back as I reached forward, and his friend took a step closer to me. “Come on, mate,” he said. “You look like you could do with the money.”
He was too close to me now. he meant to be threatening. The one who held the stove stared at me. The third did not make eye contact, looked uncomfortable, but his feet were firmly rooted, and an appeal to him would be useless. The nearest family were too far away to hear anything, but near enough to run to. Even if I did, and even if those men gave chase, would the tourists here even care? Maybe they would simply stand back and watch. A story to tell back home. The Tramp versus the Chavs.
“I don’t need the money.” I said, shouldering my knapsack. “But I need that stove.”
“Bet you do,” he said, and then: “fucking tramp.”
…….The man holding my stove lit it, and pointed the flame at me. The surrealism of it all overwhelmed me: threatened with my own camping stove. I had enough will left for last one attempt. “Can I have that back?”, I asked. There was no reply. Instead, the man played with the single dial, turning the gas output up to maximum. The flame roared.
That was enough. I walked around the man who still stood so close to me I could smell the alcohol on his breath, careful not to barge him with my shoulder or knock him with my bag, and headed towards the nearest family as quickly as I could without seeming panicked. There were times in travel when this was the only answer, and I felt no shame in the action.
“Oi!” a voice shouted from behind me. I continued walking. “Oi!” it called again, and I heard feet thumping on the sand. I stopped. Turned.
“You forgot this, you twat.” He threw the camping stove, still alight, towards me. It landed harmlessly in the sand a few feet to my right: his poor aim had, I think, been deliberate. That made me feel better. These boys were keen to intimidate, but not drunk enough for violence. I bent down, turned the gas off, picked up the stove and then continued to walk back towards the masses of people”
And what struck me, reading this, was that this scene of intimidation and fear had taken place in what seemed to be a happy, sunny, place. And that, for all I knew, a similar scene might have taken place a dozen or so years earlier when I was in exactly the same place having a lovely time with my kids. Because harassment of rough sleepers, persecution of ‘others’ by people in mainstream society, is sadly common. And because homeless people are often invisible to us, partly because they try to make themselves so for self-protection, partly because we choose for them to be so, by looking but not seeing. If we don’t acknowledge their existence, we can ignore the humanity we have in common, and we can ignore the problem.
The reduced visibility of the homeless and disadvantaged is more marked in rural areas, probably because there are places like woods quite near to the centres of population, but also because it is even less wise to ‘stick out like a sore thumb’. Charlie says later in the book:
“I had once wondered why there were so few homeless in the south-west and so many in places like London, Birmingham and Manchester. Why on earth did rough sleepers choose to hole themselves up in dirty cities on shop doorways when down here there were parks, rivers and beaches? One reason is money: cities are hives, and the more people who pass you on the street, the more likely they are to drop cash in your hat. But another reason is violence. The financial, retail and tourist areas of cities – where you are most likely to find rough sleepers – are protected by the police, who are bound by strict rules. Residential areas, on the other hand, are protected by the residents, men like those in Hatherleigh who have the territorial instinct to safeguard their land, their homes and their families from anyone alien and threatening, and who will slip around the law if they have to”
When I had only recently started volunteering at Doorway, I was walking into town with my younger daughter, and she asked me how much a town like Chippenham needed such a service – who WERE these people, as they didn’t seem obvious around town? I was able to reply that we had passed five Doorway guests already……
I commend the book for its honesty and insights, and particularly for sharing with us the words and experiences of the ‘real’ homeless, reminding us how we are all human beings, just that our paths have, for various reasons, led to different places.
Thanks to Charlie, and to his publishers, Summersdale Publishers (@Summersdale) for allowing me to use the above extracts. The book is available on Amazon (obviously). And of course at actual bookshops including the place my wife spotted it – St Ives Bookseller!