Stories from the Outside
100 faces 100 stories took place in the back yard at Crisis/Skylight
Newcastle-upon-Tyne in July 2010
A collaboration between Crisis, The Cyrenians, Freedom From Torture and Tomorrow’s People – telling stories from the people who lived and worked and attended sessions at all those organisations. Also working with a team of writers who met through workshops at The Tyneside Cinema. The stories and the faces are mixed up so some people could remain unattached to the story they wrote. Number 1, City Road is home to Freedom From Torture, Crisis/Skylight and Tomorrows People. Service Users from The Cyrenians would visit City Road on a regular basis to attend workshops and support services.
Not far from Middlesex St, Whitechapel I entered a lodging house, a place inhabited almost entirely by working men. Here were two large and gloomily lit rooms, in which men cooked and ate. One workman, ‘home’ from work, sat down opposite me and began his meal. He ate silently, looking neither right or left or across at me. Here and there at various tables other men were eating, just as silently.
In the whole room there was hardly a note of conversation. I paid five pence for a ‘cabin’, the best accommodation, with space for a tiny bed and room alongside of it to undress… One old woman, between 50 and 60, a sheer wreck, I had noticed earlier in the night standing in Piccadilly. She was moved on by every policeman, and it required an average of six moves to send her doddering off one man’s beat and on to another’s. As the clocks were striking four, I saw her sleeping soundly against the iron railings of Green Park. A brisk shower was falling at the time, and she must have been drenched to the skin…
Extracts from The People of the Abyss by Jack London, who spent the summer of 1902 living among the poor working people and homeless in London.
Before I started at Skylight, I was living in hostel accommodation, not taking part in any activities, not meeting many new people. I was missing interaction with people. I was drawing as a hobby and my flat-mate suggested I went with him to Skylight to try the art sessions. The tutor let me do what I was comfortable with, so I drew Manga characters, as I did at home. I worked at my own pace on what interested me, the tutor then encouraged me to try different materials and techniques. I signed up for the City and Guilds qualifications in art. This built up my confidence and then with the help of a Progression Co-ordinator I began to address issues including my housing situation, skills and experience for returning to work, and managing my anger.
This in turn led to a painting and decorating course at Newcastle College. At Skylight I have also taken part in sessions on sculpture, car mechanics, African drumming, table tennis, in the cafe and producing the newsletter. I hope to become a member-volunteer in the learning and skills centre. Through coming here, I have progressed from having a negative attitude to a positive one. I have found that people have treated me with a positive attitude and respect.
This has encouraged me to give the same back, and to help other people. I am looking forward to my future.
It’s a great project, looking after the gardens at Virginia House. It’s a nice piece of land, and there’s some landscaping that needs to be done. I enjoy gardening. We grow all sorts here: cabbage, cauliflower. The land gives a good yield, but it needs a lot of weeding. There’s a lot of knotweed that needs pulling up. I’m thinking about putting a seat in by the burn so that you can sit down there where it’s quiet and listen to the water. It’s calming, good for stress relief.
I came to the UK three years ago with my wife and son. We have lived in Newcastle for one year. I like your country. It is difficult for me, because I don’t speak English well, but your people are very respectful to me and speak with me. I like art and maths. For twenty years I have worked as an Engineering Turner, but I can’t find a good job yet because of my English. My son loves to play on Xbox and on the computer.
This last year I suffered a horrific ordeal finding a friend dead on the sofa. He had consumed a bottle of vodka everyday for two weeks. He takes medication and when I found him in the morning he was cold to touch. I asked a paramedic to fetch a resuscitation unit, but he had died in the night and nothing could be done for him. It still haunts us, the picture of him lying there – looking peacefully asleep as well. Something I will never ever forget. I spare a thought for him everyday.
She lives at the bottom of hope mountain,
just north of the cove of despair
She lives two doors up from insecurity,
next door to ‘it’s just not fair’.
Her house is opposite temptation alley,
in the cul-de-sac of second chances
She lives in the town of the broken,
and the city of circumstances.
The street of her life is winding.
It passes ‘I don’t give a fuck’,
through the quagmire of self-doubt
and past the village called ‘stuck’.
She lives in a world of her own creation.
She lives inside her head,
round the corner from opportunity.
If she could only get out of bed.
She’s aiming for the land of integrity.
She’s heading towards glory. ?
She’s got to navigate acceptance,?
and tell a better story.
It doesn’t feel as if I do a lot to help the trainees in the Cafe, just give them things to do, talk to them about catering work. It’s all about teamwork, communicating, building up confidence. Everything we do, each one of us, has to fit together. That’s how the customers get what they want. When trainees come to us, they’ve usually spent about three months on other Skylight activities. It’s part of their progression. We don’t turn anyone away. They want to help themselves. So they work their way through – washing dishes, preparing cold food, then hot food, serving customers. They take on a little bit more each time. Job-hunting can be tough. When I started, I was a YTS trainee on £29.50 a week, and there were loads of jobs around. Now a lot of skills are disappearing and many places use food pre-prepared in factories. Every Thursday in the Evening Chronicle there might be 320 vacancies listed, but only two are in catering. Even so, a lot of trainees, especially younger ones, are really motivated. One competed against professional chefs and long-time catering lecturers in a regional competition. She made a great hot breakfast using North East produce. That was really special. I didn’t know much before about homelessness. I’ve travelled, had jobs in London, Australia and Thailand. But I always had an idea of doing charity work. Maybe to give other people a hand to help themselves. For me, it’s a rewarding experience.
In 1979 a new political era began. It was the first major recession of three in my lifetime. Those of us who were about to leave school were unprepared for its consequences. Had I left school then, before it tightened its grip, I might have stood a chance of getting a job. Instead I stayed at school for another two years, which proved disastrous. I endured a further two years of poverty whilst studying, and when I did finish my A-levels, my home life and state of mind were so unsettled that I failed them.
I emerged into a recession with no hope of a job. It seemed an unjust reward for my hard work and sacrifices. My father had problems and we often argued. My mother had left years ago and I have no siblings. Such a miserable home life resulted in me coming several times to within a hair’s breadth of taking my own life. I felt trapped. I drifted from one useless government scheme to another. Each time I was back on the dole at the end of it, no matter how hard I tried. This continued until 1990, when I gained an HNC, but as I finished it, another recession came along. In 1999, hearing there was a shortage of computer programmers to cure the Millennium Bug, I retrained as one, but by the time I had qualified, the market had evaporated and a third recession came along. People on benefits are often blamed as contributing to a problem, which is not of their making. Since when was it right to blame the victims.
3 years ago I was watching MTV music channel a song came on, it was ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ by Guns N’Roses. I saw Slash playing the guitar and I was thinking I wanna be like him! I told a friend about it who had a guitar, he gave it to me and I started to practice, having lessons to get better. I also started to grow my hair to look like a rock star. I asked my teacher to help me learn ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ and when I played it I felt just like Slash. I hope to be in a band and go back to college and learn more. I definitely feel more like a rock star now.
I came to Crisis a couple of months ago and it’s great. It’s getting me motivated and doing things.I was assaulted in 1997. I suffer a little bit from psychosis myself, but I was compensated for the assault, which meant I had a lovely holiday last year in Australia and New Zealand and made some new friends. I had a great time and, I’d like to go back and have some more adventures. I don’t know what I’d do without my mother.
I was born with my feet on backwards but I spent most of my life dancing. I suffered suspension and expulsion from school only not for the truly naughty things I did. I have been arrested never over the actually criminal things I did. I’ve worked like a machine and I created art. I found myself homeless and alone. Come the weekend my squat had 600 people in it. I am but a portly hirsute little gentleman though enjoyed of scores of romantic encounters. I impregnated a woman I barely knew. I love my beautiful talented daughter. I was born a cynic but my best stories have happy endings.
The Crisis Skylight Cafe is a commercial operation and a training opportunity with a twist. In other business situations, people have to leave their troubles at the door and get on with the job. At the Cafe, the trainees are here because of their troubles. They want to re-organise their lives, and that means risks and challenges. But you really do see people make tremendous progress. We put one person up, after three or four months, for a North East Chefs Competition. Just to take part was a great boost. The trainees can be anyone: people with catering experience or none at all. Our courses on food and hygiene are nationally recognised and take people to entry level for catering college. But not everyone here aims to progress to college, some are here to re-gain their confidence and go straight into employment.
The Cafe’s 12-16 week course covers kitchen work and front-of-house. Trainees do one day a week, and there are usually up to three each day alongside the full-time staff. They don’t all want to find jobs in the business, but some show real potential, and it would be great if a few chefs, hoteliers and others could take a trainee for a day a week as part of the programme.
After 20 years in catering, dishwasher to general manager, and managing events from family weddings to royal visits, I decided to do something on the charitable side of the business. In 2009 I came to the Crisis Skylight Cafe as assistant manager. For me, it’s inspiring. For the trainees, it can help change their lives.
Perhaps because of my dark skin, people often ask me where I am from, to which I sometimes answer with an anecdote about being found at Heathrow airport in a shoebox. I can never keep it up. I am, in fact, white British. Though I do resemble my mother, I am a lot darker than her and other family members. Friends joked about the ‘milkman’ throughout my childhood. Perhaps it was this that fed into the myths I wove about myself as some kind of changeling, some kind of child of the world that didn’t belong to one single place. I remember going backpacking on a sort of latter-day hippy trip and desperately not wanting to be identified as English, enjoying people’s inability to place me. I revelled in obscurity. That’s who I was: no one. But like my travels through India, living off a few rupees a day pretending to be poor, my ‘obscurity’ was not ‘real’. I’d had a relatively privileged upbringing and thus perhaps the dubious luxury of rejecting one identity for another, trying on different identities including the spiritual crisis of none at all.
Last year, I left a secure well-paid job as a teacher. I decided to move to Newcastle and put into practice what I had been talking and thinking about for years: to become a writer. It was a leap of faith, but I’m so glad I leapt. It has reinvigorated me and opened up new horizons; not only in terms of writing but in other ways like the voluntary work I do with Crisis. What I believe about the future and myself now is very different from a year ago.
I worked in the Crisis Building when it was the Offices of William Leech, the house builder. It was strange to revisit a building and see your past put to an entirely new use. Back then I had no idea I would visit the capital of Mozambique, Maputo. We were there under an aid package restoring a vegetable oil refinery that had been bombed during the civil war. The UN was present and everybody seemed armed, except me.The streets were filled with children, orphans of the war and rubbish bags were left lying in heaps along the full length of the roads. The kids were streetwise, lean and mean and looking for business. I noticed they were clutching open packets of ‘Chesterfield’ cigarettes in to their left hands, ‘Cigarette Boss?’ is their cry. Football, fights and felonies are all played out with their left arms raised high in the air to protect their stock. When one comes at you, there are suddenly 20 or 30 surrounding you, clamouring for hand-outs of money, food, sweets, clothes, anything. In the evenings you might come out of a bar having had a few cool beers and try not to breath in the foul smelling air. The black bags adjacent to the footpaths glisten, heaving sweat. On second glance, you see the same kids snuggling in to the black bags, asleep. You can make them out amongst the festering, fermenting, foul waste rotting away inside the bags. These are bags that offer the only means of comfort that these kids have.
I am formed
with one leaf
a long green stem
blushing faintly pink
of the earth,
new and curious
late one afternoon
I remember the
People with shiny spades.
I was frightened.
Tiny remembered child
I am reaching for things
that are not mine yet
the real children
run and shout.
I am thirsty
rain soaks our garden
my roots awake
sun fills my veins
I keep listening
I hear grasshoppers
and clouds forming
are tiny people
a long way off
Prison, on the street, I can cope with all that – But I don’t belong there. I’d love to get into radio and make a living. Listen. I was a DJ in Sheffield. Earning pretty good money. Plus a smart day job selling cars. But, it was the 1990s and I got into social drug taking. Eventually, I was doing crack and smack, and started buying goods on my credit card and taking them to the yardie who would give me £30 of drugs for £100 worth of clothes. So, because he was ripping me off, I nicked stuff out of his flat. They caught up with me, and I got kidnapped for seven hours. Beaten up to within an inch of my life. They talked about dumping me on the moors. Luckily, they just kicked me out on the street. But, as I say, I don’t belong on the street.
My fiancée and I split up. I was lost. I used to be well liked, and go around with a lot of people. Now I was single, in a flat in a grim area, tarnished as a druggie. I got caught shoplifting and sent to prison. I tried rehab in 2002 but I had no focus and soon relapsed and went shoplifting again. I was devious, dishonest, lying to people who loved me. If my Mum asked me if I was OK, I would say I was, because I didn’t want to worry her. After three more years – rehab again. Got this chance to come to a hostel in Newcastle. I stayed around, did well. I got my first qualifications – Maths, English, Health & Safety, Youth Work and Counseling. I became a Youth Worker and did loads of voluntary work. It all happened during 2-3 years here, and showed me that doing positive stuff brings about other positive things.
But, I started dabbling with coke, plus cannabis again. Thought it would help me meet a girl. Then, my Dad passed away, and I needed something to help me through. Couldn’t get cannabis, so I got heroin again. And that brought me negative things in every sense. If I’m honest, back then I would have chucked myself under a bus.
Fortunately, with their help, I came back out of it. I’ve been clean again for a few months. I hope to make a real success of my life from here on. I made a right mess of it. The worst thing is not using the support that’s in place around you. While I was doing youth work, I could advise anyone, but when I relapsed, I couldn’t even listen to my own advice. People say ‘I’m only a phone call away’ and you ignore them. Then one of the helpers at the Cyrenians said, ‘I’ll tell you what, Dave. I’ll do the thinking, you do the recovery.’
Now, in recovery, I’m concentrated on getting myself fit, a bit of boxercise, some jogging. I do voluntary work at the day centre and hope to drive the van sometimes. People, I hope, can realise I’m not the scrawny, squiggling sort of person they could see. Some people want to put you down. Maybe they get jealous of somebody in recovery. But I want to do the best for myself and for anyone else. Best I can.
The Poet John Clare’s 80-mile walk from an Asylum in Epping Forest to his home near Peterborough. He was married to Patty, but believed he was also married to a childhood sweetheart called Mary.
Some Gypsies offered to assist in my escape from the mad house. Having only honest courage and myself in my army I led the way along the route the gypsies had pointed. At nightfall I scaled some old rotten palings in a yard to clamber into a hovel where I found some trusses of clover piled up about 6 feet square which I gladly slept on. Upon waking I gained the north road where under a bank I saw a man and a boy asleep. I hailed them and they told me the name of the next village. I walked on making a good many wishes for breakfast, but wishes was no hearty meal. I begged off two drovers, but they were saucy and so I begged no more. I went on, hopping with a crippled foot as gravel had got into my old shoes. At night I tried to sleep under an old Elm tree, but the wind came between them so cold I had to look elsewhere. Eventually I found a remote cottage and slept in its porch. I remember going down dark lanes, and entering towns and villages. I felt so weak I was often asleep as I went along. I ate grass to satisfy my hunger and it seemed to taste of bread and do me good. In Peterborough some one threw me five pence and I bought some bread and cheese. I felt refreshed, but my feet were more crippled than ever and I could scarcely walk but I was too ashamed to sit down in the streets so I forced myself to keep on the move. Bye and bye a cart met me. A woman jumped out and caught fast hold of my hands and wished me to get into the cart, but I refused until I was told it was my second wife Patty. And soon we were at Northborough, but Mary was not there.
The most irritating thing about recovering from a mental health problem is that ‘normal’ people assume recovery means being able to do a ‘normal’ job. I don’t want to do a normal job … I want to write. Unfortunately, I’ll probably only be allowed to if I get something published before my benefit dries up. That doesn’t eliminate the fact that it’s also what I want to do when I recover, and, if I am allowed to for the rest of my life. Unfortunately this is just seen as something to keep me busy while I recover, not even as a means of recovering, which it certainly is. At which point I’ll probably be deemed well, as in ‘well enough to do a proper job’. Of course there is always the possibility that I’ll never be deemed well, but I try not to think about that. Hopefully, even if I’m on tablets for the rest of my life, I’ll eventually only be on a maintenance dose, which won’t stop me pursuing a career, and with luck it will be writing.
I acquired my brain injury in 2007. I was living in Middlesbrough with my ex-fiancé back in 2007 and on the day of my accident, we had an argument and she left the house. At this point I decided to leave her but I had no money to get back up to Newcastle so I took up the floor boards and ripped out the copper piping to sell at the scrap yard. I turned off the gas tap and ripped up the main gas pipe. I left the house with a bin bag full of copper piping and went to sell it at the scrap yard. I went and bought some drink. The last thing I remember before waking up in intensive care is necking cider. I had been hit by a Biffa truck (a bin lorry) and had had a subdural haematoma (bleeding in my brain). They operated on me and after surgery I was in a coma for five days.
I came out of the coma at half past four in the afternoon on my birthday, which is actually the time I was born, so you could call this quite spooky. In a way, you could say I’ve been reborn, as I was actually dead at the scene but was brought back to life by the paramedics. I was paralysed down my left side, but thankfully I regained feeling. I had post-traumatic amnesia when I regained consciousness and had forgotten that I had left my girlfriend. She was coming to see me in hospital. She said there was water up to her knees when she went in the house and told me I had left her a note, which read,
“Renae, I’m leaving you, I still love you but I’m leaving you. P.S. Don’t turn the gas back on.”
World, athwart –
the sack of it.
How many hundredweight –
Child, in a good coat, awkward and thick.
Asylum, St Nicholas’. Black stone. Light –
a stack of it.
Two pairs of knickers on, pulled up.
Shop. The one shop, Isaac Walton.
Yes we can, no we can’t, alter it.
La Sagesse, the nun at the gate.
In her shadow, the harlot. Laughter –
the lack of it.
Newcastle, November 1956
St Nicholas’, the mental hospital.
La Sagesse, the convent school.
Isaac Walton’s, the shop that stocked the uniform.
My name is Jimmy Mac and I have been all over the place. By the age of 7 I had lived in Germany and Hong Kong because my father was in the British Army, the legendary 101’s. We then came to Britain, the country that was to be my home from then on. My father went to work in the family engineering business. Unfortunately he was severely injured in a work accident. With my father in hospital my mother and I were struggling financially, so we sought employment to make ends meet. Unfortunately my dad ended up being sectioned, and the accident at work had caused the whole family a lot of un-required stress. We received no help or support from anyone. No sickness benefit, no income support or DLA. My poor mother did not know where to begin claiming benefits. I felt desolate and so alone. I started stealing for the little basic things a person needs in life and to provide for my family. Inevitably I was in and out of prison for many years. The last time I was released from prison my wife wouldn’t take me back into the house. She’d had enough and would not even let me see my children. The love my children have for me never diminished, and I now see them regularly for a drink and a chat. After years of not having them around me I can now feel their love and they now feel mine.
Walking into the kitchen for the first time I noticed someone had just been to the supermarket. Every surface was swamped by bulging Morrison’s carrier bags. However I realised all of the bags were full of rubbish due to the resident’s reluctance to empty the main bin which itself was spewing out debris like a grotty fountain. With no money, no job and nowhere to stay I was rescued from a nervous breakdown by three friends who said I could sleep on their living room floor. Unfortunately the boys were not the most house-proud of guys.
One morning I woke to find my pillow covered in threads of silky sticky dew. I found that slugs had got in under the kitchen door and made a steady somnolent pilgrimage towards my cosy pillow. I felt pretty disgusted to say the least. I began to sleep within a ring of salt in order to keep any wayward molluscs at bay. I felt pleased with my ingenious solution to this problem until one night I woke up to see a dozen slimy gastropods hovering around the perimeters of the salty fence I had erected. Skin crawling I vowed to take more serious action against my tormentors. I headed to Woolworths and bought a large tub of slug pellets. Returning home I set about dusting the yard with said pellets. I felt a bit like an olden-days farmer sowing the seeds of his crop. I suspect the reality of the situation was that I looked like the star of a camp, albeit, murderous Shake n’ Vac advert. That night I felt wary sleeping without my sodium moat. I convinced myself that the pellets would present enough of a barrier for the slugs and eventually I fell asleep. When I awoke I checked my pillow for silky trails. It was clear bar a small wet patch from where I had been sleeping open-mouthed.
I inspected the kitchen (also clear) then ventured into the yard. Very little could have prepared me for what assaulted my eyes. Looking out across the 6ft square yard I saw approximately 3,000 shrivelled up, very, very dead slugs. Filled with guilt and horror, I grabbed the empty tub of pellets that I had discarded in the kitchen. My eyes darting across the words on the packaging, I found the bit that says ‘instructions for use’ they said; ‘This product works by attracting slugs to the pellets, drawing them away from plants and crops then eradicating the slug by means of poisoning.’ The packaging also went on to say, ‘Use one kilogram tub per 44,000 sq feet.’
When I was 19 I used to live in a hostel, it was horrible, Francis House on Westgate Hill, I stayed there for seven months but now I’ve got my own flat. I used to be bad on the drink but when I went into the hostel I got worse and I had to go into Plummer Court and everything to help me get off the drink. I went so downhill and I was hanging around with smack-heads and I would never normally do that. I went really downhill, really bad actually. Horrible. Now I think I’ve improved quite a lot. I’ve got my own place now. I’m on a course with Tomorrow’s People. I don’t drink as much now, but on a Friday night I go out. I’m twenty. That’s what every twenty-year-old does on a Friday night. I start off with a bottle of red wine, hit the Bigg Market, get mesel’ totally mortelled, taxi home, my feet are aching after dancing all night and bed.
Look in the mirror,
What do you see,
Someone losing control,
Or someone that’s free,
Where’s the next bottle,
Where’s the next hit,
A life that’s worth living
Or a head that’s in bits,
It’s Never Too Late,
It’s never too late,
To change bad ways,
It’s never too late.
A Positive View
Strong-minded in what I do,
No holding back,
I’m coming through,
Nothing ventured nothing gained
Life stays the same
I won’t let set backs,
Make me feel low,
Break my stride
Or stop my flow,
A dream in reach
My goal in view,
A new life awaits,
With this positive view
One Christmas three or four years ago something my mam said to me sent me into Newcastle to be an actor. She told me to get some DVDs and one of the ones I got was ‘Scarface’. After seeing that I decided I wanted to act, because I want to get noticed for the star that I am. Since then I have been looking all over but none of the places I tried had the right situation for me. I am hoping that what I am doing at the moment will attract the attention of Hollywood. I want to live the high life because it looks great!
On the 1st May this year I had a profound and spiritual experience. It was 11 years since my father had passed away. I have thought about his death almost ever day since he died. He died a fairly torturous death; at least in my mind it felt very torturous. He had cancer, which did cruel things to his body.
I scattered his ashes at St. Mary’s Lighthouse in Whitley Bay and I visit this place often. I’ve been a few times a year and I always visit it on the anniversary of his death. But this year I had an experience; I think I got some acceptance round it. I felt this presence there and I felt a massive physical release, relief, as well as a spiritual relief and it has changed about the way I think about the whole thing and I’m at peace with it. It is what I want, it is what my father would have wanted. I think now I can start to live my life now, because I am here now.
My name is Freweyni and I am from Eritrea, which is in north Africa. I was in the Eritrean Army where I trained as a midwife. I have now got the right to live in the UK. I am looking for part-time work right now but my dream is to eventually work as a nurse or midwife in England.
The best thing for trainees who work in the Crisis Skylight Cafe is that they get tired. That might sound odd, but it helps them relax and sleep well at night. Having something structured and organised means you can make the best of the rest of your day. It’s when you can’t get to do those things naturally that your life can go off course. I spent a long time in catering and as a college lecturer before I started up the Cafe here as manager. Two of my former students have had reason to turn for help to Crisis. One was someone who had worked in catering before she got pregnant but, as a single mother, she was unemployed for four or five years and lost the confidence to go back to work. After a few months in the Crisis Cafe, she got a restaurant job and now cooks meals in a Guest House. It all fits in with the time she needs for her family. The other student was someone who never took catering work. His marriage broke up. He did a security job for a bit but left that, and came to Crisis for help. He completely lost the work ethos, but wants to make that journey back. That’s what it’s all here for. The Newcastle Cafe was going to be based on the original Crisis outlet in central London, which copied the ‘ready-to-eat’ formula of other operators. They need massive footfall and £1,000 an hour turnover. That wouldn’t work here, so we have a proper kitchen and cook things. We make everything to order. London used to just assemble sandwiches. Now they’ve changed and are more like us.
Looking Back At A Crossroad
From a dirty flat you can see,
Your chances piled up and disregarded,
Your possibility of being a nurse,
success dwindled away
In a pile of beer cans,
dirty Kebab-boxes and regrets
Left with dreams of what could have been;
What should have been.
Your parents are just pictures on the wall
Pointing at you as a child
Saying ‘could do better’.
Now you’ve gone down the wrong road,
Trying to get on the high road from the low road
Overgrown with wild roots and branches,
Trying too hard to please people,
Too late to make amends,
Go back and read the signs you’ve missed,
That read don’t, don’t you bloody fool,
Move forward carefully, take your time,
Mine fields ahead, possibility of incoming stress.
The 1970s – age of teenage rebellion, disco dancing and free love, the pill, flower power and Aquarius. Hair was long, and skirts so short our fathers locked us in the house. We rejected prejudice in all its forms. We had opened our minds and ‘let the sunshine in.’ I was a very new student nurse back then. Memories of my A&E rotation are paralysing fear of whatever emergency would next burst through the doors and awe, at the cool headed professionalism of the permanent A&E staff. On the night a homeless man was admitted, I was ordered to undress him and given plastic gloves, hood, mask and full apron for protection. The first thing that hit was his smell, and I remember watching the fleas leaping from his filthy clothes. I was disgusted and willed myself anywhere else. He was old and decaying and I don’t remember speaking to him as the ambulance crew gave their report to the doctor. A staff nurse entered the room and recognised him immediately as William, a homeless alcoholic ex-mental nurse. For years, in winter, he had ‘dislocated’ his elbow to gain ‘admission’ to A&E for the night, where staff would secretly park him on a trolley in the back corridor and get warm food and drink from the canteen. This night however, William had been found in a collapsed state and was clearly very ill. Word went quickly round the department and one by one the permanent staff gathered round his bed. They touched him and spoke to him quietly, clearly shocked and grief stricken when William died minutes later.
When we undressed him thick layers of dead skin fell to the floor in body shapes. His boots held a layer of pound notes stained brown and stuck together in the shape of his feet – slippers of money: as if death he had shed the remnants of his homelessness.
It was the 1970s – the Age of open hearts and minds, and I should have immediately seen the humanity under the dirt. Yet it was only when he was given a name, and the regard of people I admired, that I saw him.
I met William over thirty years ago but remember him still. I remember (to my shame), my reaction to him that night, that he disgusted me, that with one look I had dismissed him, blinded to the apparently remarkable man others had seen and connected with. I learned later that William would discuss his addictions with remarkable insight, that he had chosen to live rough on the streets, becoming agitated if encouraged to stay in hospital longer than he wanted, and that when alive, he had never allowed anyone to undress him.
Later, scrubbed clean, I saw the handsome young man that he was. With his long hair and beard, his face would have graced a masterful old biblical painting. William taught me that some people are treasure – the wealth of them lies buried beneath, and that sometimes we need to dig below the surface or risk missing completely, the hidden diamond.
It was raining when I came out. First time out in the rain for 2 years, and I realised my trainer had a hole in it. Shit. There was no one to meet me, of course, I wasn’t expecting anybody. Nobody had been visiting for over a year, but I used to ring my Nan up a few times. When she knew I was coming out she said I could go and sleep at hers for a bit while I got myself sorted out. I just had my other t-shirt and my pants and stuff in this see-through plastic bag with HM Prison Service on it in big letters. It made me feel like crap, walking up through the town to the bus station. Felt like everybody was looking. I hated that town. I went into the Tesco by the bus station and bought a couple of cans, and a Chunky Kit-Kat for my Nan, so then I could put my gear into a Tesco bag instead. Sleeping on Nan’s couch wasn’t much fun for either of us. She’d wake up early and want to watch breakfast TV. I’d have liked to sleep in a bit. Dead uncomfortable too, that couch, lumpy and old. It was a nightmare filling in all the forms for my Jobseekers, I’d started learning a bit more reading inside, but then they’d moved me and there was a waiting list for the course at the next place. And after all that they told me it’d be at least six weeks before my money would come through. I went to the Age Concern shop and got some more shoes, cos my trainers had split open, and a jacket and trackie bottoms, and then there wasn’t much left for anything else. Couldn’t give Nan any board. Kept looking at the jobs but there wasn’t anything I could even understand, never mind do. Then one day I got back to Nan’s and dad had been round, telling her she mustn’t let me stop there anymore. She was frightened of him, just like everybody else, the bastard. I had no choice, had to go. Probation got me into hostel for a bit, but I hated it in there – stuff went missing from my locker, and there were fights, and people giving you funny looks, and always so much noise. Fetching and carrying, that’s all I’m any good for. But there’s no real jobs in fetching and carrying any more. I couldn’t help thinking about Tracey, but it was no use going there. She’d chucked away all my stuff when I went inside. I don’t blame her.
She told me to fuck off when I phoned her and said she’d get the police if I tried to go near Callum. He’ll be nearly three now, and I haven’t even seen him walk. Anyway, as it was warmish, I found it was OK sleeping in the park. I’d sleep in the day and walk around most of the night, it was safer. In the summer it doesn’t seem bad lying about in there, lots of people do, normal people, having their lunch breaks and sitting with their kids and everything. I used to go back to Nan’s for a wash and a bit of dinner sometimes, but I haven’t been for weeks. Now it’s getting colder I wear all my clothes – don’t have to bother about carrying them, or washing them. I used to get a bit of money with the old story of needing to get home for my medication and having no bus fare, but now I don’t bother. People don’t even pretend to believe me anymore. Now I just nick a bit and beg a bit. I used to mind about people looking at me funny, but mostly now they don’t look at me at all, they avoid my eyes. I feel… I feel like I might not really exist any more. I look at my hands and it’s all I’ve still got of my old self. If I peeled off these stinking clothes, would there be anything there?
An arch a bench a doorway
A bed a chair a hoist
A lorry a boat a riverbed
Beggar vagrant broken
Absent vacant gone
Transient alien frightened
A trolley a coin a carrier bag
A tablet a nappy a bib
A photo a hump a rucksack
A cardbox a dog a blanket
A blank a slump a void
A vigil a frown a wetback
Homeless selfless stateless
No syntax no commas no rhyme
A person A person A person
In the city I saw boys and girls, some as young as 10 or 11, with the hard faces of people whose only aim is to get from one day to the next. They were clearly begging or trying to peddle something. Their clothes were crumpled and stained, and too bulky for the time of year. I was shocked to be told they mostly lived in sewers, ruined railway sheds and car wrecks. Criminal traders got them sniffing glue, then made them disperse drugs, steal and be prostitutes. This was Romania. They were Ceausescu’s legacy of orphans, the neglected harvest of a policy for large families. No wonder, as older children, they ran away. This bleak explanation made me reflect, rather than recoil. How could any society let people, especially children, live like this? A clown appeared. He put on a red nose and with mime, tricks and comedy he began to communicate with the kids. They laughed and applauded. Some paid the compliment of mimicking his movements. It was good to see that such humanity was still possible. All right, I saw this in comfort – on film*. But it still disturbed, surprised and then enlightened me. Because it is true. The real clown is Miloud Oukili and he has been working with these young people for nearly 20 years, winning their trust, helping them discover talents and feelings they didn’t know they had, including respect for themselves and for others. With back-up from social workers and volunteers, their disorganised lives took a new shape. They became acrobats, dancers, musicians, jugglers and junior clowns. Their shows now raise awareness and funds for shelter, health and education for the young homeless of today, in Romania, Italy and France. They are Parada. Telling the world does make difference.
Well here I am homeless. How did I get here? Alcohol, drugs, mental health, violent father, unhappy family, uncaring mother. Well can’t turn back time I must just get on with it. But I fear some of the hostels as the staff don’t care and the violent people wait to get me. I can’t cope with a bed-sit or flat as so called friends will find me and want to sleep on my sofa and eat my food, use my money. I feel free on the streets though have to hide at night from the evil minds. I can’t sleep at night must keep awake and run from all dangers. I sleep in the daytime on benches here and there never the same place. But can’t find work without an address and my health problems limit me. Some people stare and frown at me but did they have the same poor up bringing. Do they understand about drug pusher chasing you all day? They sometimes put heroin in a free smoke of weed without you seeing and pass it to you, to get you hooked and deal to you as a friend.
The pusher man is a murderer. I have to be aware of the one who calls me a friend. I’ve seen them offer free bags to get customer under their control. I get a shower from day centres and sometimes eat there. I tell the benevolent of my fears. They sometimes do more to help me stay alive. I like the parks in the sunny weather but the rain and cold is a problem and can make me feel ill. The older I get the weaker I feel how much longer can I survive this way of life?
My home is a hostel in Stonebridge, an area that is infamous for hosting an uprising where a policeman was decapitated. In order to enter my home in this hostel, I must scan a security pass at the entrance to the building, at which point an unsupportive worker allows me entry.
‘Lost our pass, have we?’ The jolly little fucker sing-songs this inanity as he buzzes me in. Now, I never answer nonsensical questions unless I am feeling sarcastic. But in fact, I do insist, at all times, on losing the pass, this spurious square of restriction – it is not a key which will allow me to open the door, so it is of no use to me. I have developed a quasi-paranoid conviction: The only purpose of this pass, it seems to me, is to remind the user of her impotence. It exists to underline the idea that my personal importance should no longer exist in this setting: A place where ‘keys’ are electronic tracking devices and ‘staff’ are the ones who read and write in all your ‘personal’ files who defile your living life with their puerile lies. And all of this crap because I no longer have the keys to my own little flat? Living in a hostel, I have become defensive with those who attempt to judge me. I have become suspicious of others that would try to patronize me and I have definitely developed homicidal feelings about those who would belittle or demean me.
I had tried to come to terms with anxiety and depression, which struck me, not for the first in October 2004. Winter was drawing on, which did not help, but maybe my easy going lifestyle of alcohol, loneliness, lack of motivation, bad diet and over sleeping and nothing but the TV for company were all factors which came into play during those dark days. The symptoms I encountered took me to the edge. Then came my cry for help. My whole world had caved in and at the time I thought I had nothing to live for. I became dependent on anti-depressants, tranquilizers and sleeping pills. I pleaded with my GP to lock me up for my own safety. He got in touch with the CAT team and with their help they guided me into anxiety and depression courses and a clinic, which then led me to visit a Day Centre full of different activities. I realised that there were other people in my plight and in fact, worse off. This led to one of my goals of helping other people by giving something back. It was not an overnight cure but I kept my mind off the day-to-day problems. While attending the Day Centre, I got involved in Streetwise Opera, a little know charity, which runs music workshops and helps people in my position with confidence and self-esteem. It worked as a kind of therapy and most of my symptom disappeared. I had found something to channel my energies and to focus my mind on something. It has helped to stave off my anxiety and depression. I have my goals, which I set out to do five years ago. At the time I thought my life was over but it was just the start of the best days of my life. God knows where I would be without them.
My name is Seibatu Amara. I’m from Sierra Leone. Life has been so hard for me since I was a child. I lost my mother during the war in my country. I grew up with my grandmother whom I thought she would love and care for me, but it turns the other way round. Very cruel and hard-hearted, she forced me to join the Female Genital Mutilation, (FGM), which I refused and fled from my country against my own wish. A friend helped me to escape without her today I think I should not have being a life.
Being here in the UK, has been life changing experience, meeting different people and living in a different culture. Love and support has changed my life. At the moment I’m on the waiting list of the Medical Foundation. Although my future is uncertain because of my current status. But my lawyer is fighting hard against that. With the help and support from organisations like Crisis and REAH has made a great impact on my life. In which I’m very grateful.
My name is Yassir Hamd. I am 26 years old. And I come from Sudan. I am single. I like playing football and watching TV. I don’t like cooking. I have studied Accounts for three years back home. Now I am learning English and hope to go to university to study again.
I am Cathy. I was admitted, along with my sister and mother, to a workhouse in 1952. I cannot begin to imagine the fear and humiliation she felt. She would never talk about it. I remember, as a 5 year old, my Auntie throwing my mother’s meagre possessions on to the street. My Uncle had hired a wheelbarrow and took us on the long journey to Homelands: a building used for homeless people. Our room on the top floor was very small. Mice would scurry in and out of our shoes during the night. There was no lock on the door and I remember mother crying because someone had stolen her hairgrips. We had communal bathrooms, which were never clean. Once, she was punched in the face and fell down the stone stairs breaking her nose. She tried to find work, but no one was interested when they saw the workhouse address. But it wasn’t all bad: Christmas Day we received an apple, orange, nuts and presents given by the Roundtable, a charity. I will never forget the misery my mother suffered.
I am Ian I came to Crisis Skylight after I left work in 2005.Back then my state of mind was chaotic. I was nervous, racked up in my mind and my head. I had no confidence or self esteem. I just wanted to dissolve like a disprin and vanish from the face of the earth. But gradually, I opened up my mind and saw that there was more to life than the drudgery I was suffering from. I built on that and my life got better, better and better. I’ve been all round the Quayside taking pictures and learning about photography. I got to know about Helix Art and did some projects with them and a brilliant project called A Day in Our Lives. I got interested more and more with photography and after that I learnt about Photoshop and I’ve even done a college course and hopefully I will progress from that and hopefully become a professional photographer.
My name is Tahir. I am 26 years old. I come from Iran and have been in Newcastle for 4 years. I am learning English and hope my studies go well. I like maths and grammar. I miss my family, but I can never return. There is no freedom there.
I’m Hazel, I lost my house five years ago, and it’s not nice being homeless, but it’s not been all bad, lovely things have happened too. I love the freedom. I talk to others in the same situation and it always comes back to that: the freedom, the freedom. Once I had Civic Park to myself at Christmas. I had the place all to myself. It was magic, not a soul around, and that gorgeous Christmas tree. They bring it over from Oslo and well, I had a little celebratory Christmas wine. It was totally magical. I don’t think I will ever forget it.Some things have been quite fab actually, constructive, like meeting Magali through GAP and putting on an exhibition of artwork and making a book called I See You Don’t See. So it’s hasn’t all been negative. I remember once taking Magali to Chinatown, because she hadn’t seen it, and I was there taking photographs and a policeman came up to me and said, ‘Eh Hazel what you doing?’ And I told him I was with my photography tutor and Magali came over and said, ‘Can I help.’ And it was like wow. He wanted his photo taking then didn’t he? Posing for the camera, but I didn’t have it turned on! I still do my voluntary work and I’m getting somewhere new to live again. I believe now you can still have your freedom with your own accommodation because it is secure, but I’ve met some wonderfully protective gentlemen on the streets. We’ve slept in tents, and they’ve looked after me and been such gentlemen, but I kept tidying up because you can keep a tent clean. You can still keep yourself clean on the streets.
Every story, even the happiest story in the world, is spliced with misfortune and this is no exception. What follows is a genuine account of a happy time, unhappiness omitted. After years of unemployment and failed attempts at education, I finally got a job, and so, as a little gift of victory to myself, I bought a horse. Casually flicking through ads on Google, I thought I could never afford to actually buy one, but then one caught my eye. “17.2 Thoroughbred – £700”. The advert claimed he was simply ‘priced to sell’ but still, I knew, there must be a catch. I typed the number in my phone and saved it as ‘Thoroughbred’, although I knew really I wasn’t going to ring it. There was no photo of him, so I just had to imagine what he looked like. I fancied he was jet black, like Black Beauty, only much bigger. I had to at least find out, and two days later, I was sitting on a train on my way to see him. He wasn’t what I imagined, he was better. As tall as a police horse, but built like a racehorse, he was like no horse I’d ridden before, and compared to the native ponies and heavy cobs I was used to, he would be a challenge. But the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. And so, a week later against all my better judgements I was handing over £700 in exchange for a passport for a horse I really knew nothing about. I’ve been the proud owner of of it for two months now and he has given me confidence in a way that no one else has been able to do. He’s far too big, disrespectful at times and acts like a baby when in fact he is a middle-aged man. But he is the best risk I’ve ever taken and my favourite regret. He is my childhood dream come true.
She picked me up off the pavement. Opposite, where the Pakis lived. Forty of them in there. Looks a normal place from the outside, pebbledash an’ that. Could see ‘em peering round the curtain, an’ not one of ‘em came out to stand me up. Plenty of cars to lean against. I would’ve just stood for a bit an’ sobered up. But she came out for work. In ‘er heels. I’d seen ‘er hit asbos over the head with those. Poor buggers, I thought. And now I was one. Wobbling as she pulled me up. Jesus, it was bright. Head like a cracker going off. What’d she say? Well that was it, wasn’t it? She’d had enough. Ashamed of me. And I was stood there with my head cracking, and she told me to get out before she was back from work. I moved to a bedsit in South Croydon. Not too far. Keep the same circles, ‘ey? Darts was Mondays. I went to get my clothes and ‘er son was there, Billy. Didn’t let me near her. Said I could keep my distance. Yeah, I said, like you Bill, driving that bus into the railway bridge? Lazy bastard. He should’ve looked up to me. Was at Thompson’s thirty year working the big lathes. I got my son ‘is first job there too. Got paid a pound an hour, two hours a day sweeping up for that darkie Peter. Coughed like a hag, Peter. Eighty Bensons a day. Forty-nine, he was. His wife fell to pieces. And his kids. I went to the funeral. All darkies. My son came too. He liked Peter. He’d start in the office and go out into the factory, and when he came back he’d have to sweep up the office again. All the ash, see. Bastard Peter. I made my son ask him for a pay rise. He wouldn’t ask himself. Fucking sweeping up the office twice a day for a pound an hour. Never said nothing for himself. Such a poof. At least her Billy stood ‘is ground. Couldn’t see a bloody bridge coming at ‘im, but not afraid to speak up.
Not like my son. Made me ashamed. Couldn’t ‘e stand up for himself? Even Peter said it. Having a darkie tell you your son’s a poof, that the fucking worse, ain’t it? ‘You’re boy don’t say nothing.’ So I did it again, didn’t I? Got ‘im promotion making ladder parts, those trays painters use to keep the ladder steady. Fuck knows how we sold ‘em. You’d be up a ladder and the metal would just buckle under. The complaints we got. Then Thompson died and that was that. It’s a car showroom now. For wedding cars. Then I fitted air conditioning. Crawling through tunnels and boxes. It’s hard work, that crawling, fitting, screwing. I thought, what the fuck am I doing at my age. On my elbows and knees. My blood in those boxes over your head. You ever thought what’s over your head? I remember lifting ‘im above my head. His belly in the palm of my hand. I’d spin ‘im round the ceiling. He loved that, blond curly bastard. He laughed, spinning round my head. Too big to fit in my fist now. Too big for ‘is boots now. I don’t talk to ‘im because ‘e don’t give a fuck about me. Did I deserve that? A letter to break my heart? Coward, more like. I got ‘im that job, didn’t I? What was it worth? Did ‘e come looking when she kicked me out? Ah, but… what did I need from ‘im? Nothing. Somewhere to rest. Not on the pavement. I needed a box, so I got one for myself. Phillips 50” Plasma TV cardboard box with the polystyrene inside. Set it up in a doorway off Seven Dials. All this, because the Pakis wouldn’t come and stand me up. Peter was a darkie, but ‘e would’ve done it. Forty-nine, and eighty a day. Decent enough, for a darkie. See you soon, Peter, down in the ash. Nil illigitimo desperandam carburundum, ‘ey? His poor wife. Poor fucking kids.
To start with I’ve been in Newcastle over 25 years, before that I lived down south. My experience is of having lived in various properties, under slum landlords with no interest in tenants other maximizing profit. Being on the receiving end, and seeing this business for what it is: a vile one, which needs massive change. I’m aware that “Rachmanism” is still alive and well, despite rent Acts after 1965 supposedly adding to tenants’ security.
Example: A collapsing roof & water pouring in every time there’s any rain, no insulation, no central heating, broken windows, no security, severe mould, crumbling plaster & brickwork, cracks in ceiling of all rooms, no TV aerial, exposed wiring, mould in every room, having locks changed with no notice while you’re out, etc. It seems law is on the side of the landlord every time. A landlord can raise the rent regardless of the condition of the house and the Council doesn’t want to know because, well, they might have to go to the trouble of sending someone out to assess the rent or even the condition of the property. Trouble is, they’d have to explain how the landlord can justify the rent increase in its dilapidated state, and why the taxpayer is expected to reward slum landlords. So who’s benefiting: the tenant with the housing issues doesn’t, the council doesn’t the taxpayer doesn’t. Only the landlords and their agents get fat. Regarding the so-called ‘housing shortage’ issue: as I see it there’s in fact little shortage of actual housing, it’s just in the hands of unscrupulous landlords accumulating property-building empires.
A few weeks back, when Moat was recently chased around Northumberland, police were overwhelmed by having to search the enormous number of empty houses scattered all over the Rothbury region in Northumberland. Yet constantly I’m hearing news items that ‘young people can’t afford to buy in their own communities’, and will probably never be able to do so. It is as much a distribution or redistribution problem, as any actual shortage.
How many office blocks in cities across the country have you seen over the years that are empty or have numerous vacancy signs. There are a great many empty properties, perfectly habitable, perfectly suitable for homeless, with modest updating. Trouble is, it suits the successive political elites not to do anything of any substance about it. The whole property and housing situation has evolved in a very unhealthy, unfair and unbalanced way and on class based interests. I feel the inadequate provision of secure, safe housing where people have no stake feeds an abundance of other social problems. Recent governments, both Tory and New Labour, now the Liberals too stand in the way of the required revolution in the housing needs. Crisis offers some valuable solutions and optimism in amongst this mess, and big things have small beginnings. The futures not written, nothing is written … unless you write it. But it won’t be written without struggle.
It was January 2007
And then only a building site
That I became part of the fabric
Of Newcastle’s Crisis Skylight
The Centre has developed
And myself along the way
It’s a Learning and Skills Centre
Where I gain knowledge every day
I attend my daily sessions
Work hard but have a laugh
Have you guessed who I am?
A member, no I’m staff!
In this fantastic learning Centre
A place like no other
Members, Volunteers and Staff
All learn from each other.
Have a dream, have ago. Yes, but you have to keep a real perspective on things. Realistically, the kind of work I’d be looking for is the sort of things I’ve done in the past, like kitchen porter. But I want to write. I’d always keep writing, as a hobby, a passion, to do in my own time. If I could get work in that field it would a dream. But it would be quite silly to think I could only work for Melody Maker or NME.
Currently I am doing some play-writing. On the course, we had a guided tour of the Theatre Royal, and we’re getting everything together for some people to act in a performance and there’ll be work backstage. I also write a lot of poems. They’re my main thing. What I like about poetry over other writing, is the freedom. I stick with poetry cos it’s my comfort zone, but I’d love to do other things. I try to write book reviews, and plan interviews. I’d like to interview famous people, give them half a dozen questions. Like Martin Scorsese. Or Henry Cooper. Film? Scriptwriting? That would be a dream could true. It would be a privilege, a massive learning curve.
I want to set myself a life-plan. In about three years I want to manage my own flat, be working, have four essential certificates, Food Hygiene, Health & Safety, Lifting & Handling, First Aid – cos all that opens the door to a lot of employment. Further down the line, I’d like to go in for my driving test.
I‘m not knocking homeless accommodation but I never want to need to go back into it. That would be the best compliment for it. The revolving door situation is not for me.
I’m really new to Newcastle. I saw Crisis one day, and thought, ‘Hello what is this?’, I’d no idea what it was. I’ve been coming to the Centre for about 4 months now. I’ve been all over the world. I was born in Israel, and served in the army there. Had some terrible times, but I also had some fun. That’s my attitude to life: ‘Have some fun, you are only here once.’
What about my experience of England? Well, obviously I don’t like the weather but the people are warm and friendly. People should know more about the kind of things that I’ve learned here at Crisis. I’ve gathered skills in sculpture, art, photography, and I’m doing computers now. It’s all fun for me. That’s my philosophy. Enjoy life, learn something and help other people as much as you can. The support you get at Crisis is absolutely superb. It helps you to build up skills, get back your confidence, and gives you the opportunity to start life again, if you need that. People here are non-judgmental and dedicated to helping you.
I think Crisis could be more high-profile. It needs to build up its profile so that instead of people outside saying ‘Who is Crisis?, they should be saying ‘Yes, we know where Crisis is and what they do.’ Of course, your starting point is yourself. I have noticed in Newcastle that people who are downtrodden often don’t have faith in themselves. But coming to Crisis gives you that ability to learn about yourself and build up your strengths, and also use your strengths.
When I was a child I used to watch ‘Byker Grove’ and think ‘I want to be an actor when I’m older.’ My family was known to Social Services before I was born. My Mam couldn’t really look after us – me and my sisters and my brothers. I was with her for five years to see if she could support us, but then Social Services came and took us away. I screamed my head off. I wanted to get back with my Mam. I tried running away from care homes, but always got took back. I’ve been to loads of different places.
Two months ago, I wasn’t homeless. I had a place of my own, but I had to leave it due to homophobic abuse. I was in a two-bedroom house with my dog. But neighbours didn’t like the fact that I was gay. They put horse manure through my letterbox, pelted bricks against the window, they burgled us, scared my dog half to death, and all because I’m gay. I reported it, but the police said they can’t do anything until something really happens.
I thought, ‘Hang on, have I got to get beaten up so that you can do something about it?’. I’m now at Virginia House and the management is far better than any I’ve had in my life. And being in care from age 5 to 17, I know what to look for in people. I want to get my own place again, have my dog back and settle down with my fiancé, who’s absolutely wonderful. I love him to bits. And get work as an actor. Break the mould of what my Dad’s done, just dead end jobs. I’m rehearsing for a play at the moment, about the Great North Run. I’m also doing one in London in December, with Streetwise Opera and Helix Arts. Actually that’s the fourth performance in my life. I’m nervous about that – forgetting my lines and stuff – but you know what, I’ve got a vibe about it.
I’m 22 now. I’ve been seven years homeless. I came from London to Newcastle to find a hostel. What forced us into it, was my Mam’s ex-husband. What he did. I love my brother and sister to bits, as people do, and I had a good life with them and with my Mam, until everything went downhill.
Mam and my own Dad split up when I was six months. Now I haven’t seen my Ma for 2 years, or my Dad for 4 years. That’s difficult. I had a choice when I was 15, either go into care or be homeless. Being in care is really bad. So I went homeless and did rough sleeping for about 6 months. Then I went into hostels. Some are OK, but others were not very nice places, and at one of them the staff were really nasty. I’ve lived in about 21 hostels. What I’d say now is ‘Whatever you do, don’t ever become homeless. Stay with your families the best that you can, until you can get yourself a flat.’ When I was 17 I started touching the drugs with a couple of mates, and one day I got stitched by a joint and went to hospital. Then I found out I had panic attacks, so I’ve got medication for them. I wouldn’t let people take drugs cos they are really bad for you. Now I’m in Virginia House and my panic attacks are calming down a bit. The rent’s cheap. I can have visitors. It’s a step along the road. Best hostel I’ve been at. The staff are really helpful. Other things help as well, like singing with Streetwise Opera. I want to work either as a chef, ‘cos I have got my Levels 1 and 2, or a dance instructor, ‘cos I used to win competitions when I was really young. I’m a good dancer and people have told us I’ve a good voice on us as well. My girlfriend is due twins soon. So we have to get sorted out, get a flat for ourselves. For our children.
As a photographer, I try to portray people who often go unnoticed, people on the margins of society, overlooked or avoided. Or those in ‘hidden’ occupations, such as low-paid people in faraway sweatshops or sex workers on the streets of Tyne and Wear. Or simply people in ordinary jobs that everyone else takes for granted. One of my current projects is with farming families in Northumberland and Brittany in different seasons of the year. Before taking pictures or shooting film, I always approach people without the equipment, and spend time with them, talking, listening, working alongside, to begin to understand their situation. People can be suspicious of photographers. They have heard about the ones who sweep in and get pictures only to make money. My work has been commissioned by research organisations or for communication purposes, to raise awareness of issues. Things like poverty, homelessness, low pay, abuse that affect people all over the world. I had no background in photography before training at Sunderland University. I’m quite shy but because of my camera I feel I can approach anyone. I’ve done documentary shoots all over – in a Scottish monastery, volunteers among the poor in Nepal, migrant workers in domestic service in Singapore. More recently, with the Cyrenians and others in Newcastle, I have contributed to material about homelessness, including a book and exhibition. That led to work at City House with Crisis. To some people, it can look as if we are just being voyeurs. But this kind of project promotes understanding about the experiences of other people and the issues involved. It gives the unnoticed a chance to be seen, a voice. And it is a way of showing that people care.
Down And Out In Paris and London
It was a tall, battered-looking house, with dim lights in all the windows, some of which were patched with brown paper. I entered a stone passage-way, and a little etiolated boy with sleepy eyes appeared from a door leading to a cellar. Murmurous sounds came from the cellar, and a wave of hot air and cheese. The boy yawned and held out his hand. ‘Want a kip? That’ll be a ’og, guv’nor.’ I paid the shilling, and the boy led me up a rickety unlighted staircase to a bedroom. It had a sweetish reek of paregoric and foul linen; the windows seemed to be tight shut, and the air was almost suffocating at first. There was a candle burning, and I saw that the room measured fifteen feet square by eight high, and had eight beds in it. Already six lodgers were in bed, queer lumpy shapes with all their own clothes, even their boots, piled on top of them. Someone was coughing in a loathsome manner in one corner. When I got into the bed I found that it was as hard as a board, and as for the pillow, it was a mere hard cylinder like a block of wood. It was rather worse than sleeping on a table, because the bed was not six feet long, and very narrow, and the mattress was convex, so that one had to hold on to avoid falling out. The sheets stank so horribly of sweat that I could not bear them near my nose. Also, the bedclothes only consisted of the sheets and a cotton counterpane, so that though stuffy it was none too warm. Several noises recurred throughout the night. About once in an hour the man on my left — a sailor, I think — woke up, swore vilely, and lighted a cigarette. Another man, victim of a bladder disease, got up and noisily used his chamber-pot half a dozen times during the night.
George Orwell (1929)
I’d had a break from catering and needed to build up my confidence when I joined the Skylight Cafe team earlier this year through the Future Jobs Fund. It’s certainly worked. After three months they put me in for this regional chef’s competition. I had to devise a Northumbrian Breakfast and serve it up to national judges, top chefs and caterers, at Gosforth Park. Other competitors included chefs from hotels and restaurants, with loads of experience, and catering college lecturers. It was a bit of a panic to start with, but I just had to get on with it. I made drop scones, served with my home-made raspberry jam, then scrambled eggs on toasted ciabatta and Bywell kippers. I didn’t win, but that wasn’t the point. It was a great experience and if it was to come along again, I’d give it another go. Part of building up my confidence has also been through helping people from Crisis Skylight to build up theirs with the training in the Cafe. I’ve helped them get settled on kitchen tasks and in the sandwich area. One lad I helped did his Level 1 Catering qualification here and he plans to go on to college to do his Level 2. I’ve got an extension on my time here. So it’s all working out all right.
At Crisis we run ESOL classes. Some members already have degrees from their own countries and some have never been to school at all. They are universally committed to their learning. What they need are good English skills, either to support their applications to stay in the UK or develop their skills to help them find work and long-term places to live. Some who already have leave to remain in Britain have had difficulties dealing with mainstream services, problems with housing, signing on, making appointments with solicitors and so on. Better English helps them all round. They are mainly looking for a safer, more settled life, and want to work hard to secure it. Some are refugees from war zones or have suffered political and ethnic oppression at home. I do the ESOL initial assessments when people first come to Crisis to see what level ESOL class will suit them best. We also support them in accessing all the other services here, including the Progression Coordinators. We encourage people to join other Crisis sessions such as Art, Computers, Sport or Driving Theory. Some people have suffered terrible mistreatment, torture, rape and have needed medical attention, after arriving in Britain with the after-effects of bullet wounds, stabbing injuries, damaged backs, and mental trauma. We keep the classes fairly small, up to 12 at most, to give people the best chance to make progress. At the moment most of the people in the ESOL classes are from Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Afghanistan and African countries such as Eritrea, Congo and Sudan. Some people also come from North Africa and the Middle East. There’s a lot of demand and sometimes we have to have a waiting list.
I come from Congo and I am an Asylum Seeker. Before I came to the UK I was a social worker helping teenagers, especially girls who got pregnant before marriage,most of whom were abandoned. I set up a charity to look after them. Before university in Kinshasa, I used to do fashion design at school, and I helped the girls by teaching them to sew. They got work to earn money to look after themselves and their babies.I wanted to raise awareness about them because in Congo we have a culture of parents thinking they should give opportunities for boys rather than girls to go into higher education. I was trying to make people understand that boys and girls are equal.
I campaigned among young people to raise awareness about HIV and contraception to stop girls getting pregnant too young. It was also about stopping violence against young women. I come from a big family. Dad encouraged me to go to university. If I hadn’t been in higher education, I couldn’t have done what I did. I came to the UK in 2003 and I have been through difficult times. Depressed. Sitting at home, crying all the time. Really, I am lucky to be still alive. It helps me to talk about all these things. At one point, when I felt a little bit stronger, I started sewing. Friends from church gave me a sewing machine, and I made clothes for myself. Then I thought – why not make a shirt for Alan at the Medical Foundation, who was doing so much to help me. I gave him the shirt and he said, “Oh, it’s great.”I asked if we could do something for the Medical Foundation, to raise funds. I don’t think he believed me when I said ‘A Fashion Show.’ ‘Fashion?’ he said. But we did that. We did a fashion show for the Foundation and it was great.
My name is Wayne I’m originally from North Shields and I lived with my granddad, who I called dad. You see I was brought up in an alcoholic family. When my granddad died I went back with my parents and it was just a nightmare. I wanted to get away. So I went down to the terminal and stowed away on a ferry. I’d planned it all out. I arrived in Oslo and managed to get through security. I had a little money that my granddad had put aside for me, so I went to a cafe; I was lucky and offered a job in exchange for me keep. Eventually I decided to go back to my mam, but it turned into another nightmare. I’ve just come to Crisis as I’m on the verge of homelessness and I need help. It’s great here, friendly people. I do lots of voluntary work. One of the things I think is important is making people aware that everyone’s different. I like to show there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Some people aren’t confident writing, so I get them to use pictures to tell a story. I think I’d like to make a film just of pictures. I love dancing though. Dance is my thing. I do Contemporary Dance with Flex. It is dancing, for people who have learning difficulties or maybe people with disabilities. We put on shows at the Gala in Durham. I also dance with Best Foot Forward. It helps me to communicate, let off steam. There are all sorts you can do with dance like challenging knife crime and things like that.
Front of House.That’s where we’re in contact with the customers. Cafe staff and trainees together. First impressions count a lot when people come through the door, and we have to keep the place smart, clean and attractive. Then, at the counter, we have to keep that impression going, when we take people’s orders. That can be a big challenge for somebody re-building their confidence. The trainees who come to us have been sent in our direction because they have already made great progress in getting their lives back together. They have the motivation, the personality. The training is partly practical. Many of them have never done this work before. I can show someone the right way to make a cappuccino, how to use trays and so on. Eventually they’ll go on and do it really well every time. It is one thing to make a cup of coffee, but Customer service is something else. That’s the real leap forward. To start with, it’s not easy being on this side of the counter, taking someone’s order, or getting questions about the menu. Sometimes a trainee just freezes and needs a bit of help. Every day is satisfying for me. I’ve always worked in catering and customer services. I’ve been here two years front-of-house. It includes admin and paperwork, but the most interesting part is the training side. The best thing is that customers keep coming back. Trainees and staff – the whole team – we must be making the right impression.
My name is Sarah, I’m 17. I’ve been in and out of care since I was a baby because me mam and dad were alcoholics. Me little sister Ashley died. I found her. Me mam and dad had nervous breakdowns. Then when I was 2 I was raped. People were arrested, but me mam, I don’t say she didn’t love me, but she was more bothered about the drink and depressed because of Ashley dying so I was sent back into care. Later on me and mam were living in Wallsend. Me mam thought it was me dad who raped me even though it wasn’t, so they’d broke up and she was with her new boyfriend. When I was 6 my baby brother, David, died and it was me who found him as well. Me mum was asleep on the settee and I woke her and she rang the ambulance, but James had gone all blue and he had died. I was sent into care with someone called Joan and she raised me from then on. One day me mam bought me a big Garfield teddy. And I sleep with it on me bed every night. The day after, she killed herself with anti-depressant drugs. When I was 12, I was raped again, by two lads on the Town Moor. I didn’t say anything at first but then I told me social worker and the police found the condom and the black plastic bag they’d used, but nothing was done. After that I moved to another foster carer in Whitley bay, but soon I’ll get my own flat. I passed all my GCSEs and I’m going to do an apprenticeship in health and social care because I want to go into nursing. My Dad’s quite old, and I want to care for him and other people who have been in my situation. It’s been hard but you’ve got to get on with it. I wouldn’t be the person I am now if it wasn’t for what happened to me. Because I think I’m quite good for a teenager. I’m really happy and really bubbly. I’m always laughing about something. I’m always smiling.
I’m from Newcastle’s West End where I’ve lived all my life. I’ve had a drug problem since I was eleven years old. I’ve committed crime and I’ve been in jail since I was fifteen onwards. Me Da left me Ma and I went off the rails. I became a bit of a toe rag. I’ve taken thousand and thousands of drugs. I was last in Castington Young Offenders Institution where I got my numeracy and literacy level ones and I was working on my level two before I was released. It’s been alright since I got out. I’ve come here to Virginia House and get help from the support staff and I’ve made some friends. They call me Tinny because I used to drink cans all the time. I’m hoping to get a job now as a fitness instructor and I might get the opportunity – if it comes off – of living on a boat – a tall ship.
As the Volunteer Coordinator here at Crisis I have worked with lots of interesting people both members and volunteers. There have been many rewarding experiences, such as at Christmas time seeing the members and volunteers enjoying themselves. I think a particularly satisfying occasion was when I worked with a group of member volunteers preparing for a PowerPoint presentation on Equality and Diversity. Seeing each individual develop – not only in terms of the skills they acquired, but also in confidence and self-belief – and stand up before a group of people was tremendous. They did a great job and the whole event was very successful. Progression is one of the many things Crisis is about.
My name is Peter and I’m 40. I’ve been coming to Crisis for a while now. I’ve done lots of courses like car maintenance and photography. I was once in a film, I was an extra in the film ‘Billy Elliot’. My wife’s sister knew the director Stephen Daldry and that’s how I got onto it. But at the time I was working for my dad. He was in the coal business and I had to carry 8st bags of coal. Well he only paid me £16 a day and the film was paying £55. So I did two days of filming as a coal miner, though I had to get up early and lift 100 bags of coal first. On the third day I got my haircut and they couldn’t use me because of continuity. I’ve never seen the film so I don’t know whether I was in it or not.
I adored you before I really knew you,
I ran away with you before I really knew you,
I loved you before I really knew you,
I married you before I really knew you,
We had children before I really knew you,
I would’ve died for you before I really knew you
So I guessed we’d share one life before I really knew you
Now I know you…
I know what it means to be destitute. I had a house but nothing else. I would have happily swapped it for a friend. After 14 years of abuse my partner walked out. He had systematically removed my friends and destroyed my relationship with my family. He took everything. I was a void. I had no self-esteem and was afraid of everything. He had been my whole world. Everything I had done was for him. I had devoted my life to his happiness, because when he wasn’t happy he took it out on me. Verbally, emotionally, physically. It’s all the same. And the emotional scars are much worse than the physical ones. It’s not about anger, it’s about control. He controlled all that I was. My only interest had been helping him run his business. After he left I lost contact with the people and the activities I’d been part of for years. When he’d gone I told some of them. They were sympathetic but they carried on using his business. Supporting him, and in doing so telling him that what he did was ok. Damaged and despondent I felt forsaken by the world. I was utterly devoid of human contact. Completely wanting. In need of company, companionship, in need of someone to tell me it would all be ok. I longed to be held, to be allowed to cry, to be reassured, to be validated. I was utterly, desperately alone.
I had learnt to respond to his anger by shutting down my thoughts, to protect myself against his cruelty. He had forbidden me the right to feel for so long, denied me the right to my emotions. I’d experienced solitary confinement within my soul. Alone. Psychologically cauterized. I was emotionally destitute. My humiliation tormented me. The shame ate away at me like acid burning through skin. It left me hollow, wanting, desperately lacking. A hideous, menacing weight around my neck. It reared it’s ugly head to say ‘why did you stay’? Destroyed, cut off, alone, I could not find my way back to being ok. Could not find who I used to be, when I used to feel.
I had to learn to make friends again; which is not easy when you’re fully realising and coming to terms with the horror of what’s happened. However, I persevered, determined not to let him take any more of my life. I re-connected with my family and I am beginning to make friends. I no longer feel the desolation, the abandonment and the sheer loneliness. More importantly I have re-discovered what I like, what I want, what I need. I have come ‘home’ to myself.
My name is Mesut and I am from a place called Pazarcik in Turkey. I came to England with my parents eight years ago. I now live in Newcastle and go to college. I am twenty-two years old and have been coming to Crisis for a year now. I have done the sculpture course and one in beauty. I love shopping. My favourite shops are: New Look, River Island and Primark. I love holidays. My best holiday was when I went to Paris in 2008. It was a fantastic place. I really enjoyed it there. My second favourite holiday is Cologne in Germany. I visited a famous church called Dom. I like the riverside in Germany and the shopping centre. I like watching TV – ‘X Factor’ and ‘Deal or No Deal’.
Found in long grass
Only white, perfect in shape
‘God’s perfect creation’
Annoyed with me my art teacher would say
‘go closer, Alan, and then you will see it differently’
Browns; Pinks; Black; soiled
I lift each one of you from your place in the grass.
A new place in the palm of my left hand, which held my mother’s right hand as she died
my soft hands, warm
damaged planting trees
that’s when I saw you all
I had to come back for you
‘Apple’, I am told, gently with love
I do not know
I am lost. You fade in my hand
When I was 14, I made a friend. It was strange, as she’d always been there, but never as anything more than a ‘distant relation’, which was stranger still, as the friend I made at 14 was my sister. In my rebellion of youth we found a common ground. She became my guide for all things that a 14 year old ought not to do! Up until this point my sister had lived in care and had seen and been party to many things, both good and bad. But predominately bad, and perhaps this is what led to her ultimate downfall. Despite everything, she was a fantastic individual, full of life and full of quirks and a great sense of humour to boot. We shared many high jinks and in exchange for cheap strawberry wine she supplied me with, I gave her friendship and a familiar bond, which she had long been lacking. It was unnoticeable to start with, a pint of lager on a Wednesday afternoon, a glass of wine at Sunday lunchtime. But then it went from choice to necessity. I saw her metamorphosis from a pretty, happy young woman and mother to a bloated, jaundiced, self-loathing wretch. I saw her dismissed by doctors as just another drunk. I saw her friends turn their backs, unable to witness the destruction of a life right before their eyes. I saw her take her last breath, all consumed by Friday night relaxation and Freshers Week debauchery. Now somehow the laughing and joking about the early onset of liver disease from the amounts consumed on a Saturday night don’t seem so funny anymore. Now the friend I found at 14 is gone, having made the ultimate gesture to all those who caused her unhappiness and pain and sorrow. But at least she is a free spirit once more.
My name is Abd Alsalam. I am from Syria. I live with my family in Aleppo 350 km north of Damascus in one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in history. Ever since the 3rd millennium BC, Aleppo has been a flourishing city, with a unique strategic position. This position gave the city a distinctive role from the days of the Akkadian and Amorite kingdoms until modern times.
I finished my study in business administration from Aleppo University and for the last 3 years I worked in a big company as a financial manager. I am now a volunteer on a global exchange programme at Crisis/Skylight and have been here three months. Today is my last day. When I get back to Syria I will start my diploma in Education Rehabilitation rather than go back to my old job. But I will continue to work in a sales department. I had a good experience in UK and learnt many new skills as a volunteer. The global exchange is a big point of change in my life because I feel after this programme I have change a lot; I am starting to see the world in a different way.
On the weekend of the Ouseburn festival, I turned up at Crisis, for the Language and Culture Group trip, wishing I had brought my brolly as the rain showers were quite heavy. We arrived at the City Farm where there were a handful of people congregating outside listening to a couple of lads performing rap songs. The group leader suggested we go inside and take a look around, which we did. We passed a yoga class, children having their faces painted and round the back there were a few pigs and chickens.
Returning through the building, the yoga class had finished and we were met with requests and playful cajoling to take part in a class in Bollywood dancing. There were about 10 of us who found ourselves dancing, learning some of the intricate moves and choreography of Indian Dance. It was great fun; we spent about an hour doing it. Then the lady announced that we were now going to do a public performance. We might have resisted, there was a slight hesitation in her voice that seemed to suggest she’d accept it if we said no, but one of the members cried out like a character in a schmaltzy American movie, ‘Yes we can do it guys’ and before I could run away, found myself facing an audience milling about before us enjoying the sun shining through the breaking clouds. I can’t imagine what the audience made of it. I was always about a move behind everyone else it seemed, putting the wrong leg forward, turning the opposite way to the dancer to my right. Despite how awful we must have looked, when we finished and the audience were clapping, I felt an odd sense of achievement and I couldn’t stop grinning, and on turning to my fellow dancers I could see I wasn’t the only one.
I ran away with my girl fiend once, travelling. We were in Sydney, when she decided to hitch to Cairns alone, some 2,700 km. I didn’t want her to hitch but she insisted. After she had left, I couldn’t stop worrying and by the second day decided I had to go find her. Money was low so I had to hitch too. I slept by the kindness of strangers for the first two nights, a settee once and then a futon on the living room floor. But then on the third day I made a mistake.
It wasn’t until I had shut the door and he pulled back on to the road that I noticed, but I was unable to say anything other than go through the usual hiker’s script. ‘Where’re you heading?’ ‘Where you come from?’ I suppose I was trying to normalise the situation, but there’s no denying a man driving along with his boxers down by his ankles while he masturbates. I stare out at the empty road before me. I had to act quickly; I was being driven further and further away from help. He gets angry with me when I refuse him, starts screaming what he wants to do to me; and I’m petrified now. Then he slams on the brakes hysterically demanding I get out. I watch him drive away, his car fishtailing madly in the dust. And then I’m alone in the desert. The few cars that pass refuse to stop. I head in to the outback. I can see in the distance a train that seems to stretch for miles. It’s further away than I thought, but I reach it as it’s only travelling at slow running pace. Car after car full of cattle passes me before I see a carriage. It has a ladder on the side, which I grab. It takes me all the way to Townsville. When I arrive at Cairns, my girlfriend is safe. She had done the journey in 2 days, it had taken me 5.
I’m a Whistler – that is, I whistle merely with my lips, without the aid of anything besides. I’ve been at it about seven years. I used to get into the streets and stop out all day playing with other boys, most of them older than myself. They often persuaded me to ‘hop the wag’ – that is, play truant from school, and spend the money my father gave me to take to the schoolmaster. They used to take me to Covent Garden or Farringdon Market where they used to prig a lot of apples and pears. Not with the idea of selling them but just to eat. They wanted me to do the same, but I never would or never did. I was always afraid of being sent to prison. At last I was persuaded to stop out all night with them. I left them next morning but was afraid to go home. I had got nothing to eat so I thought I’d see if I could get a few pence by singing a song. I walked about all day singing but didn’t get a penny until about six o’clock. But by nine o’clock I mustered enough for a lodging-house in Whitechapel, for something to eat and lodging for the night. Later on, I worked all round town and got well known. Sometimes in public houses I’d whistle on a piece of baccy pipe, moving my fingers as if I was playing a flute, and nobody could tell the difference if they hadn’t seen me. Sometimes I used to be asked to stand outside hotels, taverns, even club-houses, and give ‘em a tune. I often had sixpences, shillings and half-crowns thrown me. I only wish I had such luck now, for the world’s topsy-turvy and I can’t get hardly anything.
From ‘The Whistling Man’ in Henry Mayhew’s ‘London Labour and the London Poor’. – 1851
I am an asylum seeker, and I am Iranian. I was a military officer in the Revolutionary Guard. A Brigadier. I was involved in the war with Iraq for eight or nine years. The Persian Gulf is a vast area of water but it is full of shipping from all around the world, taking oil away to the rest of the world. Iraq attacked us, but we took the Iraqi transfer port for oil. It was in our hands for two years. Then there was more fighting in the Gulf, and after one incident there were 300 of us in the water in Gulf. We were at sea for 17 days. No fresh water. Only 17 people survived, and we were picked up near the Saudi coast. The Saudis took us from the water and after three or four days of recovery they returned us to Iran. I was in hospital for three or four months after that. I came to the UK in 2002. I have been seeking asylum here ever since, but still no decision. I am still trying. I don’t think Britain will send me back because there is so much opposition to Iran. And I am fighting for democracy and freedom in my country. The Medical Foundation has helped me so much through all of this time. I was in the Revolutionary Guard but, for many of us, our policy was different from our government’s. We wanted to oppose the nuclear race. We said we have to build the economy first. Schools, food, roads, are the things Iran needs, not nuclear waste. That’s the reason people have been to jail for our policies. That’s the reason I’m here.
Night in the hostel
With the curious lockers standing all about like tombstones, there was a strange effect of a graveyard where bodies were merely flung. Yet occasionally could be seen limbs wildly tossing in fantastic nightmare gestures, accompanied by guttural cries, grunts, oaths. And there was one
fellow off in a gloomy corner, who in his dreams was oppressed by some frightful calamity. He began to utter long wails that went almost like yells from a hound, echoing through this chill place of tombstones where men lay like the dead.
The sound in its high piercing beginnings that dwindled to final melancholy moans, expressed a red and grim tragedy of the unfathomable possibilities of the man’s dreams. But to the youth these were not merely the shrieks of a vision-pierced man: they were an utterance of the meaning of the room and its occupants. It was to him the protest of the wretch who feels the touch of the imperturbable granite wheels, and who then cries with an impersonal eloquence, with a strength not from him, giving voice to the wail of a whole section, a class, a people. This, weaving into the young man’s brain, and mingling with his views of the vast and sombre shadows that, like mighty black fingers, curled around the naked bodies, made the young man so that he did not sleep, but lay carving the biographies for these men from his meagre experience.
An Experiment in Misery – Stephen Crane (1894)
A young man poses as penniless and goes into a New York men’s hostel in an effort to understand homelessness
I was born and grew up in suburban Surrey in the 1950’s. A single child of a single mother living with my grandparents. My mother worked in the city everyday, a commuter trip from Hampton Court to Waterloo. My grandmother and aunts brought me up while my grandfather slept in an armchair. My mother worked to afford to send me to a posh school where I would grow up to be a proper English gentleman. But I felt lonely and depressed even as a child and resented everything that was done for me. I got into trouble and fought the established ways of doing things. I was ‘a rebel without a cause’. I have always been determined and tenacious. If I want something I do it. Sometimes I have a bit of a low opinion of myself, which holds me back, but also, a big ego, which doesn’t help either. I like luxury but can manage on nothing. Sometimes I feel King of all I survey and sometimes I sleep because I don’t know what else to do. All I know is that I cannot blame anything or anybody for who I am. I made my own decisions, good and bad. Now I feel most alive when I am working with people, whether they are young or old, rich or poor, professionals or amateurs. They teach me about life and keep me on the right road. My journey is a search for meaning in those little moments of people’s lives, not necessarily significant moments, but those small things that teach us about ourselves and our place in the world and how, ultimately, we need each other.
My name is Rilda Aprisanti Oelangan Taneko, I am an Indonesian writer who works mainly on stories of people who are socially excluded and those who live outside their own countries. These tend to be people who have suffered from violence, who are homeless, immigrants and exiles. I was born in Lampung – southern part of Sumatra Island in 1980 and graduated from Lampung University in Sociology (Cum Laude) as the best student and won a writing competition at university. I taught Sociology Gender at university and worked as a coordinator at a women advocacy NGO.
In 2004 I went to Holland to pursue my Masters Degree in Gender and Development Studies at Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, as a Ford Foundation International Fellow. During my time there I was invited to attend Leadership of Social Justice Institute at Washington DC. In Holland I met my husband. We lived in Maastricht with our son before moving to Malaysia and, finally, UK. Since 2002, I have been published in literary and scholarly works in Indonesian journals and other media including Radio Netherlands. My first short story compilation book, Kereta Pagi Menuju Den Haag (Morning Train to The Hague) will be published in October 2010.
The city of Maastricht was still blanketed with morning mist on the day of her first arrival. My first sight of her was that she stood in my porch, she wore a blue coat that look too big on her little tanned skinny body. Her hair was long and black while her little face reminded me of an Indonesian woman image in my father’s painting. When I was a child, there were times when Papa stood still in front of the painting for hours. I can remember clearly how, at those moments, Papa’s eyes often look very sad.
On the morning she arrived at my house, she sat in a dark leather sofa in front of me; right at her back, through a floor-to-ceiling window I could see little birds packed a bunch of peanuts I hanged on a garden arch. Slowly, the mist disappeared in the air. The morning dew dried as the sun shone and tried to uncover the gray autumn clouds. Suddenly, she cleared her throat and changed the position of her seat. She informed me plainly that she did not like to sit still and wait. ‘Well,’ I said to myself, ‘It turned out that I am not as important as I thought.’ ‘Welcome to my house, Miss. How was the trip? Did you enjoy the journey on the plane?’ I asked in my fluent Indonesian. She smiled briefly. Then, without answering my question, she changed the position of her seat, again. Her body was returned with a clear signal: she did not like small and unnecessary talk. ‘Miss, do you know your purpose coming to this country?’ ‘Yes,’ she said. She looked me in the eyes and answered firmly, ‘I am here to be your wife.’
For many of the prisoners who passed through the gates of a Victorian gaol, the prospect before them as they left prison was far more chilling than when they had entered it. For, while the worst horrors of C18th gaols had for the most part been eradicated, the attitude of Victorian society, complacent, censorious and unimaginative, created an environment in which the person who had once broken the law found it virtually impossible to keep him self alive without breaking it again. The immediate future presented pressing problems. What could he eat? Where could he sleep? He might have a small amount of money in his possession but when that was gone, destitution faced him unless he had already found a job. Then it was likely to be a choice between resorting to theft, or perishing of hunger. No one looked after them, and there were many who left prison without a hat or coat or shoes. Now the real question placed before a fellow creature in such a predicament was – shall I starve or steal?
If the outlook was bleak for a male prisoner, it was many times worse for a female. Her character was gone and her reputation blackened. She was not only a ‘gaol bird’ but also a ‘fallen woman’. No decent house would open its door to her, so the path to service was blocked. Every pressure of society drove her towards a low lodging-house, where she was likely to sink still lower, or on to the streets, or to the ships lying in dock at the sea ports.
Extract from The Story of NEPACS: Care for prisoners and their families in the North East, by Ruth Cranfield, 2010
It was night. The ninth night. The darkest, heaviest, most silent night. Under the snow and in the darkness brought by the weather, the horizon was no longer visible. It was night. The ninth night. The trafficker had said: The ninth night will be the last night you spend in your homeland. In silence, we walked furtively towards the border. We were about to flee from our homeland. Each of us for our own reasons…
It was night. The ninth night. And the snow was still coming down. We reached the top of a mountain. The trafficker called out: Take a last look at your country. We stopped. We turned round and looked behind us. With the darkness all around we could not make out the land. All we could see were our footsteps in the snow. We cried. Then we began to run across to the other side of the border. Ahead, the land was white. No footprints. A blank canvas. One of the party began to slow down. It was a small man who was carrying no luggage. Throughout our journey, he had been the slowest, the most tired and the most anxious of all of us. He went off to sit against a rock. I went after him to see if he needed a hand walking. ‘Where am I supposed to go?’ he asked. ‘To the other side of the border’.
‘That doesn’t make any sense!’ ‘So why travel all this way?’ ‘I left to save my words. I wanted to take them to the other side of the frontier… ‘
‘Words? What words!’ Seeing my perplexed expression he replied:
I had them hidden in my eyes. And when everyone began to cry, I, too, burst into tears. The tears took the words with them… they fell onto the ground, and into the snow. Without words, no matter where I go, I will be a stranger… More foreign than a foreigner. Down there, without my homeland, I would at least have had my words with me.’
I began to rummage in the snow. Beneath the snow, there was mud. The soil and the words had been mixed together. I took a few handfuls of mud and put them in my kit bag. The man smiled. An odd smile. He said: “How do you intend to sift out the words from the soil. Exile will be a blank page for you, which you will only be able to fill with the past. The present in exile can only be written in the margins and at the bottom of the page.” He leaned against the rock and asked me to leave him alone. Then he laughed again, a bitter, hollow laugh. “My name is Atiq,” he said “Atiq? Are we namesakes or are you my double?” “Neither. You, you are just my name.” This frightened me. I left him alone. After a few faltering steps, I began to run and I disappeared into the darkness, on the other side of the border.
“The Ninth Night” – Atiq Rahimi 3/1/2000 Paris
‘News at Ten’ was on as usual, except this particular night the headlines opened with my dad’s face on the screen, ‘sentenced to 5 years’. Poor dad and poor mum. She was left with huge bills and debts and suffered the humiliation of dad’s ‘infamy’. Straight away two families in the area, with the same surname, wrote front-page articles for the local newspapers to make sure everyone knew they were not related to ‘us’. Dad’s first business had collapsed, due to government changes; he still had big ideas and set up a new business that should have been really successful but he encountered such bad luck! Wrong places- wrong time! He then made a mistake. He was clearly desperate and not thinking straight. I invited the police in for tea and sandwiches. After News at Ten, lots of people pointed at mum, bitched about us; we could silence the local pharmacy within seconds just by walking in! It’s a bit of a cliché but you find out who your true friends are; luckily for me there were two girls at school whose families didn’t block out mum and me. On the positive side mum and I became really close, up until then I was ‘daddy’s girl’. We had each other. We got by, I left school and we both got jobs- mine was an apprenticeship; mum fibbed about her age to get her job. Luckily her boss had a good heart, understood our circumstances, so she kept her job as his secretary. All the other office staff used to go on and on about the things they would do and buy with their annual January bonuses. Mum’s was always used to pay off debts.
What day is it? she asked.
And in the asking, pierced with lived reality
the soft veneer of innocence.
Pulled apart the children fingers from the father’s hand.
What day is it?
And in the hallway poverty stood shivering
in the dead man’s coat. Ten steps away
from warmth of every kind. Two doors down.
Afterward the meat was fouled.
The unwrapped bounty mocked her want and
stripped her bare. Turning blue
the blue-veined exiled flesh.
and I find myself, thank God,
unable still to comprehend the depth of isolation,
lived, before a neighbour’s question,
asked on such a morning.
Physical Education lesson, 1997(ish). I’m standing alone in a cold hall, the rest of the class is laughing, joking and messing around as you’d expect from Primary School children. ‘Right settle down’ shouts Miss D; waiting for quiet she scans the room. ‘Ok, we’re going to warm up. I would like you to all run around the room, try not to bump into each other’ she says tiresomely. It always happened in P.E, someone was not watching where they were going and someone else was flung onto the floor. Today it was my turn. I saw it coming. As we all ran around the room, two of the girls charged at me, slamming into both of my shoulders, inevitably I fell to floor. They laughed and ran off. ‘It was an accident’, they would tell Miss S. It wasn’t.
The classroom, 1998. I was in year six now. Mr S was reading out the parts for the school Christmas play and handing out scripts. The play was called “Baboushka” and I had been chosen to be Baboushka. Mr S was the sort of teacher who would command silence as soon as he walked into a room. He wasn’t very approachable; I couldn’t tell him that I didn’t want to do it. In my young mind I had to, there was no other option. As we rehearsed, my tormentors looking on, I was confident. I wasn’t me at that time. I was Baboushka. I was hooked. 12 years on and I have graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Drama. I’m thankful for Mr S giving me that role. I don’t know what the future holds for me. All I do know is that I want to help others find that confidence I found 12 years ago
I am 29 and I have wasted a lot of my life taking drugs and drinking. Three years ago I managed to quit the drugs and drink. I started a course of treatment for an illness I had contracted because I was still smoking cannabis and I ended up losing my mind and was hospitalised. It was the most terrifying thing that ever happened to me. Needless to say I had to stop the treatment.
After about a year I was ready to start treatment again. I have been volunteering at the Skylight Cafe, which helped me get a bit of confidence. I had also been walking the dogs at the local shelter. It was then that I met my Tess. She is a beautiful big girl with the most affection, the loveliest dog I’ve ever met. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to cope with her as I knew I was going to be ill again. But once I took her home I knew that I had made the best decision of my life. She helped me get through the 11 months of treatment. There were times when I felt I was losing it again but I knew I had to be ok for her.
Now I have been sober and off drugs for three years and I’m finally starting to think clearly. I have been volunteering with Skylight and the Cyrenians and I’ve just been offered a job at the Woman’s Hostel where I have been volunteering. I’ve discovered that I love plants and collecting and making things. In the future I would love to have children and many more animals and I hope I will always be able to do a job that means something to me, helping and supporting people through difficult times. Tess has been the best thing that has every happened to me and I love her so much,
In the child’s best interests
Money, and the efficient skilled service it procures, can be provided from any source. But that close, personal affection and watchfulness essential to children, which no other guardianship can replace, can only be given by parents.Yet even parents can be thwarted and embittered by crushing toil and slavish drudgery until their natural affection is destroyed. The nation needs the active and free co-operation of fathers and mothers in the upbringing of its children, and it must enable them to do their share of the work.At the present moment, the nation, as super-guardian of its children, acts, in the case of the children of the poor, in a manner so baffling, so harassing, so contradictory, that the only feelings it induces in the minds of parents who lives are passed in incessant toil and incessant want are exasperation, fear and resentment.Suppose the State, as co-guardian of the children, stripped off, when dealing with parents, the uniform of a police constable … and approached them in some such spirit as that displayed by the Public Trustee when dealing with testators and executors. He offers advice, security, a free hand in carrying out any legal purpose.Were there a department of Public Guardianship upon which every parent might rely for counsel and effective help, very many whose difficulty is not the actual housing and feeding of their children, would be only too glad to take advantage of its advice.
‘Round About a Pound a Week’ by Maud Pember Reeves (1913)
My name is Tracy and I’m 44 years old. I used to go to a mental health resource centre but I was kicked out because I got very angry and kicked off. They didn’t understand what I was going through. My sister had committed suicide and it made me very angry, I didn’t understand why she had left us.
I decided to come to Crisis to see what it was all about. I thought at the time that Crisis had something to do with mental health because of the name, Crisis. As I was having an emotional crisis at the time I thought that I had come to the right place. I later found out that it had nothing to do with mental health but it was a Learning Centre. Anyway, I became in involved and started coming on a regular basis. I got to know all the staff who have helped me tremendously to turn my life around and I am now studying for a degree in French with the Open University. One summer I was working on a summer job as canoeing instructor in the Ardeche in France. I was canoeing along when all of a sudden I capsized and I was under water and I looked up and all I could see was men’s genitalia I didn’t realised I had been canoeing through a nudist camp. I struggled to get my breath back because I was so shocked. The guys helped me out of the canoe and asked me if I needed any help. I was all flustered. I said I was ok and went on my way.
I’m one of those really annoying people who can say… ‘I love my job’… or rather parts of it. At times, it can be difficult working for the Medical Foundation, difficult to hear and understand some of the experiences of our clients. It’s also challenging to understand the logic that is used surrounding torture and the stories of those who have ‘turned a blind eye’ or even justified it. Often I battle with my own conscience, deciding whether or not to eat my lunch when I know there are others are around who haven’t eaten in days, whether to check my appearance around those who’ve been sleeping rough and knowing there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it, I feel utterly helpless. Anger is something I regularly experience, anger at our Justice System and the manner in which other human beings are treated because they don’t own any purple gold (British passport). Working for the Medical Foundation isn’t always difficult, our clients being the main reason I thrive in my role, the sharing of stories and conversations over cups of tea.
Our conversations are more than often about cultural differences, varying from the utter disbelief in the Geordie culture of ‘no coats on a night out’ to how weddings are celebrated. Some of my favourites are. I remember a particular client called me at the office somewhat panicky… She heard what she thought were gunshots the previous evening, when I explained bonfire night and that the noise was probably fireworks she paused and burst into a moment of laughter.
Another of our clients had recently arrived in the UK from Africa, he hadn’t realised how cold it was in January. On his first day here he had mistaken cold breaths of air for smoking and initially thought most of the population of London were smokers. Our clients playfully tease me. My Geordie pronunciation of words in other languages can often have our clients sniggering in laughter at me. I hear many stories of trauma, torture, loss … difficult journeys to seek safety here in the UK, some of which would sit well in a Hollywood action film, really quite unbelievable.
Although the stories I hear most of are of love and of loss, the stories of fathers missing their children, wives their husbands, their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, not knowing, but hoping they’re all still alive. I, guiltily, personalise this sometimes and think of mine who wait for me at home. My favourite tale of love is one that’s ongoing. A client who has a wife in his home country and who describes living in a culture where it is acceptable to have more than one wife. He speaks of her (his wife) with such affection warmth and love that I wait with anticipation for the words he’ll use to describe her next time. He says to me, ‘Michelle, in my country you should have maybe two or three wives, but me, I have never wanted anyone else’.
My Name is Jennie and there was a time when I was low and vulnerable and in a relationship where I felt like there was no way out. I lost confidence, self-esteem and the ability to trust. With help and support from people around me, I was able to make changes, which improved my life and well-being. Now I am confident, healthy and have the happy face you see today. The experience made me want to help people in similar circumstances. I studied to become a Counsellor and recently qualified.
The job I do now involves helping people access opportunities in training, the voluntary sector and employment by listening when they need to talk, giving advice, guidance, encouragement and support and enabling them to do more and feel better.
I love my job and I hope to be part of this fantastic team and partnership for many years to come. It is very important to me to act as a positive influence on people and continue to make a difference to people’s lives as well as my own personal development.
I work in Virginia House. I used to work at Elliott House for years. I got very involved with the lads there. I used to find them loads of stuff. They used to call it Lena’s Boutique, ‘cos the lads could come for anything from a pair of socks or a pair of glasses, to a walking stick or wheel-chair. I always had something that they needed. It’s good to see them all working together, helping each other. It’s really, really good. You do miss them, you shouldn’t have a relationship with them, but you do. You can’t help it, if you think somebody is getting on, you have a soft spot for them. You try to be the same with everybody, try fairness, you know, but there’s always the one that stands out for you and they’ll always be that one you remember.
I lost me son, to drugs. They were all blue valium. It killed about four in the one weekend and he had to be one of them. I don’t think I could have gotten on because then I could come, well I’ll not say take it out on them, but I used to say to them, ‘I lost me laddie from doing what you’re doing’, you know and I would get through to them like that. But if I hadn’t had this job I couldn’t have got through all that.
I was born in Germany in 1975, my dad worked in the forces and me mam was working in one of the shops over there and that’s how they met. We came to UK in 1980 and we moved to the Outer Hebrides. We lived on a farm with cattle and sheep and things. It was ok, well what I can remember of it anyway, but me mam didn’t like it, it was too isolated, so we moved back to the North East to live with my Nana. Me mam and dad split up. It hurt me loads. I haven’t seen my dad for over 20 years.
I went on the wrong sides of the path, took drugs and went on the devil’s side of life. I’ve been smoking for the last twenty-five years and it’s just like I’ve got no social life any more. It’s just really strange at the moment I’m finding it really hard to function. When I first came to Virginia House it was like 15 years ago and I’ve been in and out of the system of the homeless sector ever since. If I’m not living in the hostels, I’m living on people’s sofas, which is no good, living with families that have babies, living in their house on settees. It’s no life.
Foundation is a flesh..
Begin the torrents of quasi electric dreams
Clap and enter the gate that’s within
Down in the Calderon of the inner fire
Seal that fate that’s within our very souls
Stars converge out of this infernal hole
Dante’s chariots I ride with you over to the wonderland
To drink the honey drip dew
Calls to Venus chants to mars
People are walking driving cars
Past masters knowing the edge of truth
Dangling over people who want some truth
Echo in the alchemist
Foundation is a flesh……………
Avalon‘s dream was stolen
And a million hearts were brok- ken
And the sword that will never lose its killing edge
Is lying with its boastful bravado in the poppy fields
The oak tree is bending to winters call
And the children play
Against the backdrop of their hi rises demise
Clink goes a milk bottle
And a thousand chards of light shatter
Embeds its self into the tarmac streets
And the pathways of long forgotten time
Journeys to its bitter end
Always that saying
The foundation of flesh … is humanity.
The hammer banged reveille on the rail outside camp HQ at five am as always. Time to get up. The ragged noise was muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows and soon died away. Too cold for the warder to go on hammering. The jangling stopped. Outside it was still as dark as when Shukhov had got up in the night to use the bucket – pitch black. Except for three yellow lights visible from the window, two in the perimeter, one inside the camp. Shukhov was always up at the call. That way he had an hour all to himself before work parade – time for a man to earn a bit on the side. He could stitch covers for somebody’s mittens. Take some rich foreman his felt boots while he was still in his bunk. Rush around the storerooms looking for odd jobs. Go to the mess to stack the bowls. You’d get something to eat, but there was always too may volunteers. And the worst of it was that if there was anything left in the bowl you couldn’t help licking it. Shukhov never forgot for a moment what his first foreman had told him. An old campwolf, 12 years inside from 1943. One day he told him, ‘It’s the law of the taiga here lads. But a man can live here, just like anywhere else. Know who pegs out first? The guy who licks out bowls, puts his faith in the sick bay, or squeals.’ He was stretching it a bit, of course. A stoolie will always get by, whoever else bleeds for him.
From ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
AJ Goode and his wife Mary lived in their car for five months before getting a room at the shelter in Los Angeles, California. Mary Goode and her husband, AJ greet each other with a kiss and dissolve into laughter. They are irrepressibly upbeat. But their attitude belies their story – and their status as faces of the new, working homeless. The two are not destitute, but they live in one room at the five-storey Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles. The homeless shelter is a step up from their previous address – a white Chevy pick-up truck. ‘We were working in Tennessee at this motel, and it got really slow there. And we lost our jobs,’ Mr Goode says. They lived where they worked, so they lost their home, too. Mrs Goode laughs: ‘It’s a good truck. But we lived in it for four months because of the recession.’
‘Life can be very hard on you. If you don’t have a steady base of income coming in, if you don’t have any savings, you can go down real fast and stay there, ‘she says.
The mission sits just a few grubby blocks from gleaming skyscrapers and the city’s elegant City Hall. In the shadow of power and wealth, this is Skid Row, LA’s square mile of despair. According to the city’s Homeless Services Authority, the number of people homeless each night in the city of LA dropped from around 40,000 to 25,000 between the recession years of 2007 and 2009. BBC NEWS 1st September 2010
I wasn’t a very well behaved lad when I was at school. I didn’t have as much confidence as I do now. I missed half the Year 9 and 10 with bad behaviour and stuff. I got tarred with a bad brush. The place I lived in was quite rough and the only people you got to hang around with were the people who would get into trouble. Me mam and dad got divorced when I was three years old and I’ve been in between people all my life. There were always arguments from when I was young, so I was used to being in conflict. So I thought that was the ways things had to be so I just carried on like that at school, arguing with everybody. When I left school I went straight onto an employability course and they got us a work placement with a bricklayer. He said he was going to take us on an apprenticeship and teach us how to lay bricks, but I heard him telling somebody he wasn’t going to take me on and I just felt I was like cheap labour for him. I got offered another job, but it was just the same. Then I got an apprenticeship with a window fitter but I got sacked because I went out and celebrated my birthday and didn’t turn up for work when I should.
I started the Tomorrow’s People Course and thought it was just another course and didn’t expect much from it. But when I got there the people were really nice and made me feel comfortable. It made me want to go there. They helped me out with how to budget me money to pay me bills and stuff and helped me with CV’s and applying for jobs. Then one of the patrons at Tomorrow’s People, called Lord Michael Bates came into a session.
We really had a heart to heart talk and he gave me motivation to try and get work in the media industry as a cameraman. I had always looked up to my big brother and he works in the media and has his own production company in Ireland and is doing really well for himself. I want to follow in his footsteps. I’ve always been interested in art and photography and I really want to be a filmmaker. I am very passionate about it. The reason I am like this is because Lord Michael Bates gave me the opportunity to shoot and edit a sponsored walk he did. It was a long walk and we developed a good relationship and now he is one of my mentors. He just gave us the motivation to make progress in the industry. Hopefully I will start a course at Newcastle College soon
He sits on the sloping stones. He sits at the end of the cycle lane that passes by the University library, on the way into town. It can’t be comfortable on the stone, but he’s got his sleeping bag tucked under him, and it’s a busy path. His skin is the colour of a weak cup of tea. I’ve walked past him at least three times —since I started counting. The first time I didn’t give him any money. I walked past. It was probably early morning. I leave home about 6.30am and go to one of the cafes in town to write for an hour or two before going to work. So, I walked past. There was a robin sitting on the top of the bluntly trimmed oleander bushes that verge the Civic Centre. Robins blip: like an electrical circuit. Blip. They flicker between singing with their chests up and tails down, and then chests down, tail fanning the air. It’s so quick between the two positions it’s almost done without any movement. Blip. Blip. It’s not the improvisation of the blackbird. It’s lucky it’s got its red breast. Above us, the seahorses on the Civic Centre look over the city. They are stiff in marine blue-green crust.
He sits at the narrow neck of the path. There is some protection, some shade from exposure, from an overgrown fern as the path branches off behind the university buildings, down the back of the Civic Centre. I’ve noticed that later in the day he makes eye contact, asks for money. But at 6.30am he never looks up the path. Only down. Never towards those of us walking by to work.
The second time I saw him I walked across and dropped 50p into his hat, one of those round felt mosaic caps from the Middle East. He said thank you, mate, in a strong Scots accent. I didn’t manage to say anything. I never need the microphone when I’m giving a lecture, but here, nothing. Nothing came out, except the money. Not even a blip. The robin makes more of a noise.
The third time I dropped in a pound. He said the same. Thank you mate. I think something came out of me. Some noise. I can’t remember those one or two seconds. He may have supported Dundee United. Before I could ask, I was past him. Yesterday I walked down that path into town and he wasn’t there. I began writing a story in my head—the first pass, the second and then a fictional conceit: that I sit down next to him on the sloping stones and that—here’s the twist—I would ask him for money, and by the end of this page he would give me what was in his cap and walk off and never return to that spot again.But then this morning he is there, and my story is… Gone. Just a blip. He doesn’t look up the path, only away. I don’t give him any money. On the railings that run along the road a male blackbird pins me with its burning orange ring of an eye. Has anyone else noticed?—it’s the blackbirds next. First the pigeons, then the seagulls, then the ravens and crows. Fearless. Habituated to our rubbish, our movement, our passing. Now it’s the blackbirds. They don’t fly off when we walk past. They stare. They stare.
I love my children, me. I love them. There is no court in this Country that is going to stop me seeing my kids. Well it’s not the courts because the courts have agreed to it, but it was Julie’s care worker or something. The thing is I’ve got to be there with somebody else, right. But I was there with Julie, do you know what I mean, and they are saying you shouldn’t be there because I’m not finished my paper work. The care worker just did it, man, she just boiled my piss. I went to see my kids on Thursday. Mental. Absolutely brilliant. Went down the park, bought them loads of sweets and that, pop and that from the shop on the way back. Then at teatime we took them all out to MacDonald’s. Julie and my step kids as well. I’ve been away for two and a half years and they are only four years old, you know what I mean. I got to wean myself in slowly. You know what I mean.
My first year at College is where this story begins and where I began as a person.I was an insecure seventeen-year-old with many hopes and dreams but had no idea which ones to follow. My school days were not much of an inspiration to me and I seemed to concentrate all of my efforts into fitting in instead of saying what I really wanted and how I really felt. So when enrolling on a fine art foundation degree course I found myself for the first time with students who actively wanted to hear my opinion and shared their own thoughts with honesty. They became my most valued critics, confidants and friends. Going into further education gave me the freedom and knowledge to explore what really motivated my artwork and my eyes opened for the first time to contemporary arts and sculpture. Coming from a background of conventional schooling, I remember feeling excited by the endless possibilities within sculpture which I had never known, finding out about the range of materials artists used and the theories behind them. My main inspiration came from an artist called Rachel Whiteread whose practice was based around casting the space inside and around objects. I was intrigued by the theory of making the invisible, visible; something that you experience everyday and never noticed. This research put me on my own journey at looking at space, architecture and places unseen to the general eye within my own sculptural work. It took me to places I had never been before. Art became a big part of my life helped me communicate my deepest thoughts.
My first memory was when the timing of recruiting staff and the opening of the building had become very far apart. We had a staff team fully employed from the beginning of January and no building for them to come into.
Our first meetings were literally on upturned buckets in an empty room at the top of the building, we had to negotiate with the builder to prepare a room that we could use, because of the slippage in the building programme. This was a room that we weren’t going to refurbish, and then I thought all I needed to do was to get the computers and telephones put in, but BT wouldn’t put telephone lines into the building. The lines that were in existence hadn’t been used for two and a half years so therefore they weren’t operational and they wouldn’t come into the building for health and safety reasons because the scaffolding was still up. So we had to operate from a variety of places. We came together for meeting in the building in this one room and we did a lot of planning work but we worked in many other places, did our emails and phone calls from our mobiles and worked in the central library and from our homes. It was a great team building exercise.
The first award ceremony we had was a very memorable occasion. The number of people we gave certificates to far exceeded our expectations. There are so many to memories. People come into the building and say they can’t do things but within a very short space of time, because of the ability and skill of the staff team, we have got people to say ‘I can do that’ and that gives me the most pleasure.
To be born in the street means to wander all your life, to be free. It means accident and incident, drama, movement. It means above all dream. A harmony of irrelevant facts, which gives to your wandering a metaphysical certitude. In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards, you invent them. What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say literature. Nothing of what is called ‘adventure’ ever approaches the flavour of the street. It doesn’t matter whether you fly to the pole. Whether you sit on the floor of the ocean with a pad in your hand, whether you pull up nine cities one after the other, or whether, like Kurtz, you sail up the river and go mad. No matter how exciting, how intolerable the situation, there are always exits, always ameliorations, comforts, newspapers, religions. But once there was none of this. Once you were free. Wild, murderous… The boys you worshipped when you first came down into the street remain with you all your life. They are only real heroes. Napoleon, Lenin, Capone – all fiction. Napoleon is nothing to me in comparison with Eddie Carney who gave me my first black eye. No man I ever met seems as princely, as regal, as noble, as Lester Reardon, who by the mere act of walking down the street, inspired fear and admiration. Jules Verne never led me to the places that Stanley Borowski had up his sleeve when it came dark. Robinson Crusoe lacked imagination in comparison with Johnny Paul. All these boys of the street have a flavour about them still. They were not invented or imagined: they were real. Their names ring out like gold coins: Tom Fowler, Jim Buckley, Johnny Dunne… From ‘Black Spring’ by Henry Miller.
I have been working therapeutically with a man for 18 months now, seeing him most weeks for an hour at a time. Slowly he has begun to detail what he has never previously said, what has been too terrible to say: what happened in his torture. Today I saw him and, polite as ever, he apologised that he’d have to leave our session early. He had an appointment at a hospital to check his eyesight. I could see he wears glasses but wasn’t aware of any particular problem with his eyesight so I asked what the problem was. He said ‘I have only a little sight in my left eye’.
He looked away and didn’t speak for some moments. I realised he was highly emotional and struggling to speak. He managed to say ‘They put a scarf around my eyes. May hands were tied behind my back with metal’. I understood him to mean that he was handcuffed. His English is good but not fluent. When clients are emotionally charged, finding the right word in another language can be difficult. I suggested the word ‘handcuffed’ and he recognised it and nodded. I waited as he was still struggling to speak.
Then he spoke quickly, angrily, blurring his words and with tears in his eyes. ‘I was knocked down. They kept hitting that side of my head’. He bent forward in his chair as if re-enacting being knocked to the ground. Clients often make small gestures, minimal movements, which indicate what happened to them. He moved his head to the right side as if avoiding the blows to his left side. I waited. I could have rushed in and offered care then but it isn’t always therapeutically helpful. To sit with our clients and to share in the trauma and to able to engage with it therapeutically is more beneficial. It shows that we are not afraid of such terrors, that we, client and therapist together, can not only live through it but can work with it helpfully. Some therapists new to this work will try to relieve the emotional pressure and offer care. Others have described sitting silent like frightened rabbits in the headlights of material they can’t face and they can’t react to.
“I said to the man hitting me ‘You will blind me’ and he said …” His voice failed. I quietly said, trying to express my concern and shock, “You said to him ‘You will blind me'” to show I was staying right where the client was and that I could face this terrible memory with him. He said ‘I’m sorry. It is my job to blind you'”.
A Gateshead lass born and bred. Had a great time growing up. Spent most of my time on one mini adventure or another with my mates. Games of rounders on the field, two baller, skips or elastics were all we needed. Life was great. I have mixed emotions about school. Did I fail or did it fail me? Sampled different cities and countries for a while not searching for anything but enjoying the moments as they happened. Always worked hard and played hard. Decided one day to embark on a new challenge. Was I academic could I hold my own? Went to college and on to university. Became a lecturer. Me! Couldn’t believe it. I could do it, I was doing it, I am doing it.
Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Lyrics by Yip Harburg, music by Jay Gorney (1931)
Storytelling: Dream out loud!
It is through telling stories that we learn,
and not just facts
Methods, mechanisms, insights … all can be inspired by a story.
whether you are the teller or the receiver.
Fiction is not escapism
It is a way of, yes, of finding your way
Learning from experience that is not necessarily yours
and learning from stories is less painful than
But this is reality too
this world we live in.