It was 11 p.m.
The bolts were eased back and the doors opened. I stood, near the back of this dimly lit cafe, leaning against a pillar, and feeling very, very scared. There was a rush to the entrance. From the melee of arms, bodies and legs that prised themselves through the doorway, people shot forward into the room like pips squeezed from an orange.
Outside, there was a downpour. Through the sudden burst of noise, I could hear the sound of rain hissing on the pavement; and I could smell its rich, wet smell oozing from those struggling to get in. They had been queueing now for almost an hour.
Impressions tumbled so thick and fast after that instant, it is difficult to piece them together. But I remember vividly the way these men and women clutched onto their grubby, sodden coats as if they were stark naked underneath. I would say most of them were drunk. The first ones half tottered, half stumbled to various positions round the walls of the room, lying down on the floor or flopping into huge, dilapidated armchairs. Others followed, singly or in groups, as if to previously agreed positions, sitting down round tables and gradually filling the entire room until the smell and the noise and the crush became unbearable. I think what struck me most was the apparent joviality with which this molten lava of humanity accepted its fate. There was a great uproar of shouting, singing and laughter, and a small, grey-
haired woman, drunk beyond her wildest dreams, stretched out her arms and
danced to the general dementium of noise. She came bearing down, knocking over chairs and pushing past people, towards me.
“Ah’m no like the ithers,” she exclaimed loudly, “Ah wis brought up proper. Ah’m elegant. Do ye no think ah’m elegant?” She lifted up her coat with a grand, imperial gesture, revealing a pair of horribly deformed legs. She came closer.
“Son, you’re a guid lookin’ fella. Can ye gie us a fag?”
I lied, terribly.
“Can ye no even gie me a sixpence?”
I lied even worse.
“Then ye’re a cunt,” she belched, and pirouetted on behind me.
For a while I did not move, but let my eyes flit over the chaotic morass of bodies. I could see faces blurred with drink, faces loose, faces marble with sobriety. Behind me, a man from the Highlands, with great bushy eyebrows, put a chanter to his lips and piped a half-remembered lyric. It rose, quietly over the sound of laughter and voices, beginning to replace them with a stillness that comes of respect. Not for the first time I was to hear the slow, sad music of the destitute.
Philip O’Connor, in his Penguin book on Vagrancy, quoted a striking remark made once by a social worker. “Archaeologists,” she wrote, “interpret past civilizations by what they threw away. What contemporary society rejects can be equally revealing to the sociologist.”
About destitution and vagrancy, very little sociologically, is known. It is a terrain into which few social scientists have ventured, and out of which even fewer truths have come. Even quantitatively, the problem has eluded accurate estimation. The numbers of people sleeping rough in Britain each night has been put at 30,000 by a National Assistance Board survey conducted on two nights in November and December 1965; and as high as 90,000 by Anton Wallich Clifford, a Probation Officer who has been setting up shelters for the destitute up and down the country. Twenty thousand, he argues, probably sleep rough in the Home Counties alone. In addition to this figure, hundreds of thousands of men and women are accommodated in lodging houses, church hostels and rehabilitation centres. The problem of destitution may not be as formidable as it once was, but it is still eyebrow-raising, particularly by modern welfare standards.
is a city not exactly renowned for its destitute population. It is a deceptive city, presenting to those who do not know it well a culture and a people for whom the problems of life seem to have been well considered and resolved long since. It is a flattering facade. Over 1,000 people, ex-
mental patients, epileptics
, chronic alcoholics, criminals and pensioners—
outs” for want of a better description—
are concentrated in one small square, the Grassmarket
, overshadowed by the Castle rock
, almost in the dead centre of the city. When one
approaches it from the east end, it is like being led down into a grim, sinister amphitheatre. It used to be exactly that, in fact, two centuries ago, when Covenanters
in their hundreds were taken down and strung up in the Gallows. Their place of execution is now marked—
ironically if not conveniently—
by a gentleman’s lavatory.
As the terrain of the destitute and the dispossessed, the Grassmarket has been notorious for over a hundred years, but even in the face of this, the area has attracted more historical than sociological interest. History, here, however, provides the crucial, determining factor. The influence of psychiatry on social work is not always a clarifying one, since it has an inherent tendency to treat men as individuals with the minimal reference to history. No man can claim such independence, least of all one who is destitute. In studying the meths drinker or the vagrant in depth, we find in the majority of cases that general social disruption—the effects of economic changes and two world wars—generate profound and often tragic disorganization of individual norms and life-styles. The industrial revolution is a particular example, and the main men’s hostel in the Grassmarket was established in 1888 to cater specifically for the thousands who flocked to the city for work and who were driven off the land by the Acts of Enclosure. Even before urbanization, when the Grassmarket was a bustling market centre, its proximity to the city gates at the West Port acted as a magnet for tramps, tinkers, prostitutes and thieves.
About the destitute, it is difficult to generalize, but the problem, if it is anything, is a class one. Of the fifty or so hostel occupants I talked to, all were from working class or poor farming backgrounds. For the middle class alcoholic or mentally disturbed, the situation is much different, and he remains insulated to a surprising degree from falling down the class ladder. Societies like Alcoholics and Neurotics Anonymous act as a buffer, and often friends and relatives, too, can break the fall. In short, it is possible for many professional people to come to pieces without having to stoop to a doss house in a vain attempt to pick them up again.
Around the square, and in the streets leading into it, can be found no less than seven lodging houses, some of them church and Salvation Army hostels some Corporation aided, others private companies, run on a profit and loss basis. They tend, in fact, to be as varied as those who make use of them. The largest men’s hostel, providing accomodation for an average of 280 men per night, brings in a net profit averaging between £500 and £1,000 per year. I checked its shareholders and accounts at the City Companies Office. In their annual statement for 1963, for example, its Directors had “pleasure in reporting that the average number—321—of lodgers per night was the highest for a considerable number of years”.
Institutions like these, not surprisingly, have been condemned by
social workers since they were first built. Listen to this Report, made in 1911: “The ‘models’ do not improve men physically or morally. They are destructive of family life. Once a man is in a ‘model’, no woman can visit him … all sorts of lads who have broken away from home moorings find a haven in these places, where the sights and sounds are destructive of moral tone.”
Even for its small proportion of meths drinkers, chronic alcoholic and mentally disturbed, the hostel made no attempt at rehabilitation. It provides cubicle and dormitory accommodation at 3/9d. per night, a large sitting room open all day (the most forbidding place I’ve seen, despite fairly new furniture), a “television lounge” (i.e. a small black unlit space at the back of the hall, screened off by a curtain) and canteen facilities—at your own peril. No visitors are allowed; no alcohol on the premises; no smoking in the dormitories. The majority of lodgers are labourers, night watchmen, casual workers and pensioners. Considering the effects of hostel life on family relationships, social behaviour, and particularly leisure activity (not to mention the utter degradation), one would be happier to report less people having to stay there, not more.
The Salvation Army Women’s Hostel is the most expensive in Edinburgh, with private cubicles at 5/6d. per night, not including meals. Sixty per cent. of the lodgers are over 70; some of them have been staying there for 15 years or more. I talked to the Matron. “They’ve made this their home really … when their husbands died or left home, where else is there to go?”
Where else is there to go? An estimated 200 sleep rough in Edinburgh each night. Most of them have been evicted from the hostels—for bedwetting, an all too common effect of prolonged and heavy drinking, “creating a disturbance”, or simply unable to afford the price of a bed. Others are migrants who will pass through the city and move on somewhere else—vagrants, ex-prisoners, castaways.
Until last February, they had no shelter to go to other than old derelict buildings or benches in graveyards and gardens. Then, with a little publicity, and even less money, the Simon Community opened up a shelter 200 yards from the Grassmarket. An old soup kitchen, renovated and donated by the Church of Scotland, became an open house for the destitute. The regulations were minimal, and no one was refused admittance, not even if he was tottering drunk or plagued with lice. The word spread. Within three weeks, over 70—men and women, young and old—were queueing each night at the door.
The Simon Community was first set up in 1965 by Anton Wallich Clifford, a one-
time Probation Officer, now working full time on the problem. The Community first pioneered a new form of residential care in Stepney
, East London
, catering for the crude spirit drinker. Since then, it has opened up shelters in eight major cities up and down the
country, including Liverpool
To the problem of destitution, the Simon Community has applied unorthodox, radical policies. The basic idea is to give help on a level at which the meths drinker and the mentally handicapped can appreciate and respond—their own.
What was taking place in this little shelter, while the rain drummed loudly on the roof, was a form of very simple—and effective—group therapy. Everything that the cafe provided—a bowl of soup, a blanet, and some old clothes occasionally, was free. No one was thrown out. No one came round with Bibles or ready to hand morals; no one bothered you if all you wanted was to be left alone.
Sociologically, the shelter subculture is a fascinating network of ties and alliances, of gradations and hierarchies of dispossession, of fission-fusion relationships. What initially appears to outsiders as a closely knit community, unified by a common class and social status position is, in fact, a highly nebulous constellation of individuals, sharply stratified and set against itself. Workers, Irish migrants, pensioners, vagrants, alcoholics, tend to form more or less distinct social categories, which militate against the formation of any strong collective consciousness.
What is perhaps more striking is the atomization of individuals, even within these groupings, that further prevent a conception of themselves as members of a larger unit. It is precisely because of their economic condition, rather than in spite of it, that this should be so. Imagine a society in which hundreds live on a Social Security benefit of £5 per week or less, sprinkled with more than its fair share of alcoholics, small time crooks and mentally disturbed. You have a society set at odds not only with the outside world, which regards it with contempt, but set also against itself. Everywhere there is tightness; the tightness of lips, of hands round glass; of fingers on coins. If the dispossessed have any philosophy, then it is surely that of Lear’s Fool:
||“Have more than thou showst|
Speak less than thou knowst,
And thou shalt have more
Than two tens to a score.”
This, in short, is the atmosphere that breeds chronic alcoholism; the substance, then the shadow of normalcy is steadily eroded. What is left can be a mere human shell. Listen to one of them: “The only outlet I’ve got is to get drunk. … I get drunk heavily and drunk often. I’ve got nothing else to look forward to. Life means absolutely nothing to me. You know what I’m worth?” He opened up his arms and brought his hands together with a resounding smack. “A balloon.”
Jo was only 40—
young by destitute standards. He went to approved school
when he was 11. Ever since, he has been living like a yo-yo—
roped in for drunkenness, breach of the peace, theft and assault. He was married—
once. Tonight, in between the meths, workers at the shelter give him a bowl of hot soup. It is probably the only form of nourishment he has had since last night.
For the 70-odd others like him at the cafe, the story is much the same—army, prison, lodging house—and now this. For the women, perhaps, it is even more humiliating. Jennie was born in a hostel. Her education lasted three years, and at 16 she was a prostitute. Four years later she was inside for shoplifting. Her husband was blown to pieces in the war. You can have her—or what’s left—for 15/-, any night. Others are not so articulate—not that they didn’t try, but one soon gets lost in labyrinths of half-remembered experience.
In the spare evenings I had, I would help out at the cafe the little I could, from 11 p.m. to 2 or 3 in the morning. The first traumatic impression was that of utter and all-enveloping helplessness, and the inadequacy of these people seemed only to reflect one’s own. Each face seemed so heavy, so burdened with its own individual melancholy, one felt that nothing, no matter how much, could ever lighten them.
An hour after the doors opened, at midnight, soup was given out. Some came round to the kitchen for a second helping, but it is difficult enough to see that everyone gets a first. Later, the blankets are given out. How do you divide 30 amongst 70? The old, the disabled, the women are given one anyway. The rest wrap themselves in newspapers, old coats, anything that comes to hand. They sleep on the floor. In the back room, where the Simon workers stay up all night, conversation flits between one destitute case and another. Most of them are students, three or four of whom live and work full time on the premises. Their total earnings are £1 per week and a half ounce of tobacco. Like the destitute, they formed something of a heterogeneous and constantly changing population; an anarchist from Hemel Hempstead
; a student minister; a young Maoist
; a chemical engineer. Each night they go out amongst a galaxy of damaged and inadequate personalities, schizophrenics and physically disabled, meths drinkers, pill pushers and prostitutes. They talk and listen to as many as possible, develop a personal relationship and share their multitude of problems. Gradually, the destitute can begin to grow some roots, however frail. The Edinburgh experiment is not sufficiently equipped to reveal any encouraging results, but the London shelter can certainly do so. It works on a three tier system; the bottom tier provides shelter and a bare minimum of sustenance; the second comprises those who are attempting to stay off alcohol over a set period of time—
the “soaking out” stage, where they enjoy the comfort of a bed and three meals a day. The third tier is the stepping stone to normalcy, providing jobs and lodging accommoda
tion for those who have “dried out” and broken free from the vicious circle of acloholism and poverty. Of 15 men and women who were taken into care from the most overpublicized bomb site, six are left. Three are in lodgings in another area, one of whom has been working for three months; three went to a nearby rehabilitation hostel for alcoholics, two of whom are working; two are in hospital; one is missing. Not spectacular, admittedly, but as one Simon worker put it: “It’s a beginning—
a blue candle in the night.”
The “blue candle”, however, certainly has more than its fair share of critics, as I was soon to find out. For several days after an article of mine had appeared in the Scotsman, I received a cascade of letters, falling into more or less three distinct groups. The largest number came from people wanting to help out at the Community and enclosing money. No problem there. The second group came from the Ministry of Social Security and their numerous but conveniently anonymous allies who argued (in a rather generous sense of the word) that only bums and hobos use the cafe to spend the rest of their money on drink, and that the cafe was giving Cause For Concern. The third group, the most predictable and hair-raising, came from God, armed with every fantasy other than the proverbial flash of lightning. I must admit, however, in laying myself open to attack from this quarter, since I had described some of the Grassmarket Missionaries as irrelevant and simplistic Bible-punchers. For four days, God’s vengeance wreaked havoc in the correspondence columns of the Scotsman. If the word of the Gospel doesn’t succeed, argued one letter, then none of this newfangled rehabilitation will. When people are in need, wrote another, they turn more and more to the Gospel. I wrote back. And on the sixth day, God rested.
I remember very vividly one incident which occurred recently at the shelter. The cafe had been visited on several occasions by members of a Roman Catholic organization from Ireland, and since the shelter was trying to maintain a strictly non-denominational policy, several workers were naturally apprehensive. Nigel, the young Maoist, determined to make his point with the minimum of ill feeling and a touch of humour, countered the words of the Gospel with readings from the Thoughts of Chairman Mao. It brought the house down. “We Communists are like seeds and the people are like the soil. Wherever we go, we must unite with the people, take root and blossom among them.” The rosaries must have been clicking like <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: geiger-counters">geiger-counters.
Undaunted, the Legion of Mary
remained. On the whole, I found them a friendly and sympathetic lot, but one absolutely farcical incident made me refuse to take them seriously. It was a particularly wild Saturday night, and the Legion had walked in slightly startled as we were breaking up a minor, but nonetheless bloody fight. One of them soon got inveigled with a meths drinker called Hughie White. Hughie
was a particular favourite of mine, since he was more articulate than most, and could tell the most fantastic stories—
such as, for example, the day he was knighted by King George V
with such intricate and imaginative detail that one really began to wonder if there was something to them. They had obviously found a great deal to say to each other, for the conversation appeared to be getting more and more animated and intense. Eventually the Irishman left Hughie and came running up to the leader of the party, whom I had been talking to.
“Father,” he gasped eagerly, putting his hands on his shoulders, “I’ve just met Hughie White. I know he’s a little bitty drunk Father, but he’s one of us, and I’ll tell you, Father …”, his voice dropped to a confidential whisper, “He’s just right for a confession.”
More than once the accusation was made that the cafe attracted those from the other, more respectable hostels, who make use of the free food and shelter so that all their assistance money can be spent on drink. There were a few individual cases of people who stayed at the cafe the night before they received their money, since it had run out, but the fact that the cafe is crowded out on particularly cold and wet nights tends to suggest that it is the real “down-and-out” sleeping rough, rather than those who could afford to stay in hostels, who are attracted. There are cases also of destitute people who have been found reasonably priced accommodation and have soon abandoned them. This again would appear to be a symptom, rather than a cause, of acute alcoholism or mental instability. If we do not readily accuse cripples of being unable to do their own shopping, then equally we have no right to accuse those who are addicted to meths of being unable to look after themselves or make use of the facilities available. Alcoholism is a disease, calling like all others for long-term treatment and cure. Calvinists see alcoholism as a sin, calling for long-term temperance and chastisement. In Edinburgh, they are many; we are few.
For anarchists, however, the Simon experiment raises more questions than it in fact answers. Like all voluntary organizations set up to deal with a problem such as this, it is difficult to offer criticism without seeming insensitively pedantic or callous. For those of us concerned with creating an altogether new society, rather than patching up the defects of an old one, then voluntary social work of this type can be anathema. Many libertarians, for example, would balk at the thought of reintegrating people into a society from which they are so ostentatiously opting out; others would focus criticism on the short-term and palliative nature of voluntary assistance and level the accusation of reformism at those dealing with the problem in this way. Even more, perhaps, would object to the Simon Community’s connection with the Church, regardless of the negligible influence these have. It would be easy, in short, to write off the organization altogether as yet another ill-conceived and inadequate attempt to cope with a problem manufactured by the very society in which we live.
Even more facile it would be, however, if we were to imagine under a social order totally different from the one we know today, chronic alcoholism and destitution would automatically ease to exist, or in fact, to assume that the phenomena would never arise in the first place. Certainly, the problem would not be intensified as it is now by the prevailing ethos of a competitive, consumer-
orientated society which regards the accumulation of property as a passport to social acceptance and destitution as a symptom of individual decadence and inadequacy. Much of the so-
called “charity” which militant church and evangelical organizations administer at present is not charity at all, but chastisement, given with the express intent of making the recipient feel totally responsible and guilty for their condition. This attitude is shared, to a lesser degree, by many others who argue that failure deserves its own reward; that in our free enterprise society people who “do not make the grade” are malingerers, layabouts, and parasites. What voluntary organizations like the Simon Community come up against continually is an environment and an ideology which perpetually condemn the “down-
out” to a condition of total dispossession, poverty and squalor—
a condition regarded more as an accepted “slot” in soiety than the hideous and subhuman form of existence which it is.
In the face of this, “rehabilitation” has become the sociological password, the magic key which will unlock the doors of society to the destitute. The term is one which lends itself to a variety of interpretations and those concerned with social change rather than social patchwork should be rightly sceptical of it. A lot of soial work is wasted on the effort of reintegrating people into a social rat race which alienates and dislocates human beings in the first place; Tony Parker’s book The Man Outside provides a pointed and disturbing example of this, and one begins to realize just how hard we have to think about rehabilitating our whole society rather than tinkering with its deviant individuals.
The type of rehabilitation with which the Simon Community is primarily concerned, however, is of a somewhat different character and comes into play at the destitute level itself, by bringing the castaways together and creating a community in which they can orientate themselves and begin to communicate with others in a similar position. As a form of spontaneous group therapy, it goes a long way to breaking down the social barriers inherited and sustained by outside pressures, and forms an indispensable first step before long-term medical treatment can be embarked upon and expected to yield successful results.
All this is only possible in an environment where an “open door” policy prevails and restrictions are cut to a minimum. Other organizations have a lot to learn from the Simon experiment; but unless the conventional attempts at rehabilitation are exposed for the hopelessly misdirected efforts that they are, then we are likely to see chronic alcoholism and destitution accepted as an unavoidable and incurable condition, and not as an acute social problem calling for radical and creative solutions.