Friday, March 20, 2009

Human decay

It's not my intention to mock the plight of the homeless by relaying this event, but this morning I spotted a man carrying his life possessions in a duffel bag and knew there might be an "incident" when he boarded the next available subway train. His worn black leather jacket had a mark of elegance to it but his appearance was lost on the fact that he gave off a terrible stench trailing some 8 to 10 feet from him. When commuters got a whiff, they searched their surroundings trying to find the source. He was a harmless nuisance at most, a reminder of our own human frailties.

The man entered the middle car doors and once the train started moving we were all trapped in his scent. Passengers covered their noses with scarves and tissues and began a rippling flight towards the far ends of the car, away from the source.

I was already pressed against the emergency door to the next car; and as soon as the train stopped, I, along with a mass exodus, led the flight from the invisible danger to the next car. There was a collective sense of disbelief and relief on the faces of the commuters, who made eye contact with each other and commiserated about the trauma to their olfactory system. With each stop, newcomers from the abandoned car continued to pour into our packed refuge.

The alchemy of the man lingered as my nasal hairs clung to his human imprint. Not unlike memories of death and decay, it was a substance none of us wanted to acknowledge in ourselves. After all, we are all but a few weeks away from a similar fate. How many days, I wondered, would it take for me to be in the same condition; would I even care when and if the time comes?


Medawar said...

In 1978, when Jim Callaghan was Prime Minister, I and a couple of friends spent a week staying with an older friend in London. (His son was later to emerge from the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster with a new outlook on life and a George Cross.)

Anyway, I wandered around Soho and King's Cross for a couple of days, to see what they were like. (I would not recommend this to teenagers today!)

I saw a total of three rough sleepers. The Salvation Army at the time reckoned there were 18 in total in London, who genuinely had nowhere to stay, long term. That now sounds an unbelievably low figure, but I think it's true: overstatement, if anything, because I did look and there were three in the centre, all of whom actually slept in or near King's Cross Station.

By the time Thatcher had been in for a while, the figure was more like 30,000.
Blair inherited a figure of around 13,000, so the Major government must have got the figures headed downwards.

You try finding out what the figure after a decade of Blair and a couple of years of Brown! If it were significantly lower than when they took office, I suspect we'd be told, repeatedly, earnestly and at very great length.

The figure was, undoubtedly, much higher than 18 under the governments before Callaghan, but, at least since the 19th century, probably in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands that Thatchism had sleeping under the stars.

Callaghan launched not a single public initiative, attended not a single photo-opportunity, made nary a statement about helping rough sleepers. It just would never have crossed the mind of a Welsh Baptist Sunday School Teacher, which he was, not to try and do something. It was such an obvious thing, he just did it.

With Blair, we had the blare of trumpets everytime he or the wicked witch noticed a problem amongst us little people: any actual solutions tended strongly towards the illusory!

But, out of all the western leaders I know of in my lifetime, Jim Callaghan is the only one whose record on the homeless and rough sleepers is satisfactory, although I do admit that Major contrived to about halve the apocalypse-level of homelessness that Thatcher left behind.

I predict that this will continue to be an issue that Brown ignores or conceals, and one where Obama's input consist solely of sending his wife out to be photographed at soup kitchens.

Jim Callaghan was PM during a financial crisis, caused almost entirely by reckless borrowing and bank runway fostered by Edward Heath, of course. (Sounds vaguely familiar?)
In other words, he had less money at his disposal than any of the other prime ministers, who did little, nothing, or made the situation worse.

He deserves a much bigger, brighter page in history than Tony Blair, that's for certain.

Eva J. Mah said...

You have an award waiting for you.

Kat Gregory said...


Thanks for sharing an historical perspective of homelessness in U.K.

Would you believe that I lived in a squat near Kings Cross and St. Pancreas during the height of the Thatcher administration. The Iron Lady evicted squatters quietly living in unoccupied council flats.

The term "rough sleepers" really identifies how basic necessities are denied the homeless. In NYC, we have very inaccurate figures. A growing number of women with children are occupying the shelters. Countless others live in the subway or in the park. One of my earlier blog entries mentions a great documentary about an entire community of people living in the subway tunnels.

Eva, thanks for the award. How kind of you.