Down and out?
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Several years ago, idly listening to Radio 4 when doing my chores I found myself transfixed by what I heard. An unusual occurrence – and even more so when tuned in (as I inadvertently was) to the late John Peel’s Saturday morning show. Nothing against the Great Peel – far from it; just that I always found this programme’s stock-in-trade, a kind of safe sentimentality- sanitised and second-hand – deeply disquieting.
But on this occasion the disquiet ran deeper. Rightly so. This is a story – a real one – that lodged itself in my memory, and has continued to haunt me to this day.
The woman speaking was calmly relating her experience of homelessness. Clearly, the speaker was a skilled communicator: she didn’t need unruly exaggeration or loudness to command attention or convey her meaning. And, indeed, she had been a telly presenter. A successful one, too. She had ‘had it all’ – money, homes, family, relationships. With impressive dignity, she calmly and factually explained how her life had taken a downward trajectory. Of course, downhill motion gathers speed – as anyone who’s tried tobogganing or share dealing could confirm.
So it was for this unfortunate woman. Having had everything, she now had nothing. And it had all happened at dizzying speed. Yet there was no self-pity in her story. She even contrived humour – notably when describing how, having run out of friends for sofa-surfing purposes, she’d taken up sleeping in airport lounges. Not something you’d want to find yourself doing at a point in life when you’d normally be more concerned with retirement.
As a volunteer in a homeless shelter at the time, I knew a little – a very little – about what these circumstances might be. As a citizen with a spare room, I knew what I could – and should – do.
I rushed to the ‘phone to call the production office and offer this woman accommodation. She could live with me for a bit, the fixed address enabling her to claim benefits while getting herself back on her feet … it could work, couldn’t it?
Well, no. It couldn’t. Before I’d reached the ‘phone, I knew.
That I couldn’t possibly offer her a room. That doing so would mean asking permission from the managing agents. That, in turn, they would have to secure authorisation from the landlord. That this was something he’d never grant. That I was no longer a householder with my own house, able to dispose of its spaces as I pleased. That I was a tenant in a tiny, obscenely over-priced flat: loaded with responsibilities, enjoying precious few privileges. That redundancy, my age and a dead market had combined to enforce the sale of my house after little more than a couple of years’ grateful and delighted occupancy. That I desperately missed home and everything associated with it.
Ashamed and frustrated, I wept. Not an especially constructive reaction – and certainly of no use to the speaker who’d so impressed me. Shamefully, the story had become about me. And it shouldn’t have.
The story wasn’t mine, after all.
Ever since, I have wondered about this person. Surely I wasn’t alone in my intentions? Surely there was someone else who did reach the ‘phone and could offer shelter? And who did. I’d like to think so. So that another person’s story – better, happier – enveloped and overcame the relentless bad luck, bad breaks and bad times that had almost scuppered this woman.
Happy endings aren’t to be sniffed at: we all need them, damn it! More-or-less happy, anyway – as near to that ideal as can be. Like the old joke about the pair of parents who consult a psychiatrist about their son, who thinks he’s a chicken. They’d like him cured, of course – but at the same time they still need the eggs …
So do I. So do most of us, I’d guess. So if there is anybody out there who was either involved with or listening to that Radio 4 programme back in late ’03 – I’d like to know what happened. And I hope that someone gave this woman a whole box of the very best.
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