Rough Sleeper A Letter from London

Text: Will Self

Over the last few weeks a series of storms have blown into London – zephyrs with the warm, faintly cloacal smell of a heavy drinker’s halitosis. Back in the early 2000s, when the city had a run of unnaturally clement winters (I think it was 2003, when I found myself wearing a T-shirt, outside on Christmas Day), I floated the idea of interpolating the current four seasons with a fifth, to be called ‘Ballard’ in honour of the great English dystopian novelist and caller-in of the globally-warming near-future.

Ballard – who I had the honour to call a friend – has been dead for almost a decade now, but the season I named for him has been resurrected. What typifies Ballard is not only odd weather, but social disintegration: the grim tidings of economic collapse if there’s no deal with the European Union over Brexit are only the notional eye of the storm called ‘austerity’ that’s already hit London: in the last year the number of rough sleepers on the streets has doubled – as has the amount of homelessness overall, as the Tories’ benefit cuts and ‘rationalisations’ bite still deeper into the wanting flesh of the city’s poor.

My canary in this notably stygian coal mine remains Bill, who I first struck up an acquaintance with when he was begging by the ATM machine outside Stockwell Tube station. Bill is a fairly representative rough sleeper: an ex-squaddie with PTSD and a raging substance abuser. Seated on the York stone payment, his wizened, teak-brown face assumes the ataraxic expression of the most fatalist Buddha – yet engage with him kindly, and he becomes all smiles. Last year there was no Ballard to speak of, and London was seriously chilly by November; Bill’s bash in the yard of the local Baptist Church was inundated every rainy night. I took to subbing him a few quid each evening, so he could pay for a backpackers’ hostel – the last thing he wanted to do was go in the Local Authority one at Vauxhall Cross, which is a toxic swamp of violence and disease the rough sleeping fraternity dub ‘the last chance saloon’.

Nevertheless, that’s where Bill has ended up, after a tumultuous year which saw him admitted twice to hospital – firstly because he’d shot-up smack adulterated with Fentanyl in his groin, and acquired a pesky blood clot the size of a fatberg, and secondly because a fellow resident of the last chance saloon had thrust a broken bottle into his upper arm for no bloody reason at all. Bill contracted gangrene. He’d only gone into the hostel, in the end, because there was no other way for him to gain access to better accommodation, and drug treatment services – a nasty little Catch-22 that’s par for the so-called ‘welfare’ course. Now Bill and I are desperately seeking an in-patient berth in a proper drug rehab unit before Ballard gives way to autumn-proper. I’ve friends who work for the local council’s rough sleepers’ unit – they’re good people, but they’re pretty cynical and burnt out. Wouldn’t you be, if your job consisted of a dawn round of the local parks, kicking the sodden bundles slumped under bushes to check that they’re still… alive?

Still, at least the down-and-outs in London aren’t quite so fucked-up as those in my other neighbourhood: I spend three days every week with my girlfriend in Paris. She lives in the tenth arrondissement, close to the Gare du Nord, and in the nooks and crannies of the surrounding city you can find entire mini-bidonvilles of the homeless, complete with makeshift tents, and hollow-cheeked women clutching babies to their breasts. The addition of the occasional army foot patrol, heavily armed with semi-automatic machine guns, completes the dystopian scene. So, while the British state may be trying extract itself – with the rrrrippping sound of giant Velcro – from its entanglement with the European Union, London and Paris alike, bask in the sinister radioactive glow of a truly exceptional Ballard.


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