The job of a writer, as I am constantly reminded, is to be truthful. Veracity without frills, specifics rather than generalizations, a cynical eye and ear in order to avoid mushy homilies in place of incisive prose. Above all – sentimentality is strictly forbidden. (This is why writers don’t skip around grinning, but languish in subterranean bars with furrowed brows). Anyone can write a pretty paragraph about a sunset or a child laughing – but to truthfully describe grief, anger, loss – this is the true challenge of the author. Perhaps if I am really honest this was one of the reasons I decided to spend Christmas day working in a homeless shelter with my brother. OK, I’ll come clean; I had other non-altruistic motives – we basically didn’t want to spend the day cooped up with so many members of our large, complicated family. We wanted to do something productive, we wanted to stay in London, and we thought we’d get a nice magnanimous glow from volunteering. So on the morning of the 25th we were up at six and driving through the rain-soaked streets towards the shelter.
It was in a condemned office block near Old Street that had been lent to the charity by the council for the Christmas period, in which up to 350 homeless and hostel-dwellers could be accommodated for a week. By eight AM I was standing in the lobby of the building watching the rowdy crowd of ‘guests’ that had gathered outside the front door. And then the security man unlocked and in they came. My first job, with four other women, was to frisk the guests as they entered to liberate any hidden contraband; bottles, needles, knives (this was a ‘dry’ shelter and the boozing and drug-taking was supposed to take place off the premises, which it did, liberally). My overwhelming feeling, as the various misshapen human beings with their bedrolls and sleeping bags and tattered plastic carriers lurched towards me like the zombie chorus from the ‘Thriller’ video, was abject fear. It was, frankly, I’m ashamed to say, quite frightening having to make eye and body contact with people who I would normally pretend were invisible. However, the guests (mainly men) were delighted to be frisked by a group of nice liberal ladies wearing surgical gloves; they spread their legs and arms and told us to help ourselves. Once I had got over my squeamishness I began to enjoy it; the conversations, the jokes, the camaraderie. Sentimental Truism #1: Beneath the layers of rags, a homeless person is a human being. So shoot me.
The day passed in a strange blur of heartbreak and hilarity. I will remember some of the faces forever. The toothless ancient warlock who pinned me to the spot with his dragon’s breath of pure vodka and a terrifying stare, then told me I reminded him of a character in The Railway Children. The two ghost-white boys in Polish army combats, one sobbing, the other delivering a ceaseless comforting whisper in his ear as he led him by the hand around the centre. The gigantic Geordie in the green sequinned cowboy hat who hung out with us all day delivering tea and sardonic witticisms, only his thousand-yard stare and the scars on his arms giving him away as a guest rather than a volunteer. The dreadlocked tramp, who, on entering and being asked the ritual; ‘Do you have any drugs or alcohol?’ replied politely, ‘No, sorry.’ The seventy-five year old cockney who had walked from Victoria to be there and did press-ups in the common room before an admiring audience. The elderly West Indian who proudly showed me the new outfit he’d been given at the donated clothing depot: torn sheepskin jacket, Gap woollen tanktop, Puma trainers – ‘Them stylish clothes. Me got all the latest fashions now,’ he said, and then did a little jig for joy. The ex-professor with the scholar’s shining bald pate and the briefcase that I was obliged to search for alcohol, who told me primly, ‘I only carry literature’ (he was right, it was stuffed with books and spare socks). Sentimental Truism #2: Everyone wants to tell their story – only not everybody has somebody to listen.
I will also remember the sadness of misshapen faces and bodies, hollow cheeks, pinhole pupils, toothless mouths, hands like lumps of raw liver. The parceling of possessions, the unwrappings and rewrappings, the shifting of items from pocket to bag to boots, the layers of plastic and tissue and newspaper, the endless unholy procession from floor to floor as the guests went questing; for aspirin, for a place to shoot up, for a medic, for someone to watch their possessions while they ate or washed or had a free haircut. The whole place reeked of booze and tobacco and residual filth, a smell that clung to my clothes and hair. Later I went on shower duty, handing out towels and toiletries to men who queued patiently with their belongings, listening to the moans of ecstasy (or was it pain?) from within the cubicles as they stripped off their many layers and stood under hot water for the first time in weeks. The guests formed two broad categories – the alcoholics and drug-addicts who were constantly going outside to smoke, fight, sing and sometimes weep together in their odd little cliques, and the ones who drifted around alone like lost spirits, faces closed, eyes dead. I found myself thinking that if it came to it, I’d probably find myself in the former category. It’s harder to be a ghost as part of a crowd – once you’re one of many untouchables, you become merely repellent, not invisible to ‘ordinary’ eyes. Sentimental Truism #3: There but for the grace of God go I. Would I have the sheer human tenacity to keep going in a sub-human lifestyle? Or would I go under? As I ate my Christmas dinner (a cheese sandwich past its sell-by-date from the local Texaco), I thought about my large, complicated (loving, supportive) family having dinner together miles away and realized I was one lucky fool.
Earlier this year I read a great article by writer John Irving about how much Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is seen to embody all the best qualities of the Christmas spirit that we are happy adopt for the season – hope, generosity, forgiveness – but how once it’s over, we hold them (and the book) in scorn; sentimental, slushy things that they are. During my day in the shelter I saw many examples of hope, generosity and forgiveness, not only from the volunteers, but from the guests, who looked out for each other, and us. I also witnessed violence, ungratefulness, shameless lies and acts of drug and alcohol-related depravity that were even worse than the ones that took place in my front room on New Year’s Eve. The difference is, I suppose, the guests can’t give their lifestyle back after Christmas in the same way that us volunteers can hang up our surgical gloves and dispense with festive goodwill for another year – they are in it for the long haul. But I am slightly changed in one respect; I think Irving is right, and we are stupid to be so afraid of our more sentimental leanings. I experienced many moments this year that were funny, heartening or profound, and which might end up in a piece of writing one day, but the hours I spent at the shelter are the ones that I will remember most. That stream of human flotsam and jetsam that I searched, served, and tried to understand is the tide that has carried me over into 2008, and which, for some reason, made me feel most glad to be alive, with my sentimental faculties fully intact. Sentimental Truism #4: The ability to empathise is one of the things that keeps us human. If a homeless man who’s just has his last bottle of vodka confiscated can smile as sweetly as he did, then so can I.