Anarchy 84/Notes on poverty 1: The castaways

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Notes on poverty

1: The castaways


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.

  Edinburgh 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—“down-and-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, Glasgow and Edinburgh.

  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 Vwith 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-and-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.