I was born in north London, at the Whittington Hospital in Archway, and at the age of 62, after many years of trouble and wandering, I have come to rest in the streets where I was born. And in my usual cunning way I have become one of the roughly 300 or 400 people living in inner London you perhaps think of as ‘homeless’, making the rounds from drop-in centres to churches, from morning till night, in the hunt for free food.
For this is what my life has come down to as I stand on the threshold of old age, the endless movement from one soup kitchen to the next, which at least gets me to the end of the day by a pleasant route. Or it might be not so pleasant, because of course a lot of conflict erupts at places where a large number of people benefit from organised kindness.
But social life I can find in plenty, to take the place of friends, who have become very distant. Those friends belong to another life. And I have a good substitute in the fellowship of the pop-ins.
Who are these people? Who are the people you see queueing outside the fashion-able north London churches? They are typically alone. If they ever had a partner, that person has died or has been divorced or otherwise disposed of. I can outline a standard life story for many of these individuals which roughly parallels mine. We are almost all of a certain age. We came to London in our youth, from college or university, and then perhaps we worked for a few years. But we soon tired of that and opted for a life on the dole, which was easy enough in the Thatcher and Major years.
At a certain point we made the transition from ordinary benefits to the sick. Mental health problems were easily come by, as was social housing. A Freedom Pass completed our lifetime package. Now we have almost no expenses, may never have been taken off Disability Living Allowance and also been awarded Personal Independence Payments, and enjoy a healthy bank balance. We could afford to eat at Wetherspoon’s, and sometimes indeed we do. It is social hunger rather than a simple desire for food that drives us into the brightly lit church halls with their rows of fresh-faced volunteers standing in line to serve us. Of course not everyone who attends the soup kitchens is like this. Aren’t they meant to be for the homeless? Or for elderly working-class people who have worked all their lives? Of course there are some of the latter, and the old women who grew up in wartime Islington are a particularly terrifying presence.
And there are numerous street homeless, of course, the indigenous tramps and the great mass of foreigners. The homeless attend the pop-ins in inverse proportion to how much they beg. Persistent beggars despise the soup kitchens and will listen with weary cynicism to one’s tales of how no one need ever go hungry in London. On Friday and Saturday nights, those who have flats will emerge from them to enjoy massive takings and would not have time to waste on an unexciting meal. But those homeless who will not beg and cannot claim benefits are dependent on the drop-ins, and are often particularly friendly, thoughtful and well-turned-out people.
I would say the proportion of street homeless, actual rough sleepers, at any soup kitchen is between 5 and 10 per cent, although it may be more in central London or the roughest areas. You can usually judge the number, on entering, by the number of men wearing black woolly hats. The more hats, the more homeless. The custom is to keep these on to eat, and then our close-packed tables resemble an assembly of 17th-century Scottish covenanters at their pious conventicle.
Our type of life can only be lived in London. Provincial cities have a few opportunities but it would not be possible to get a meal at any time of day and on any day of the week. Nor do foreign cities provide the great range of outlets that are present in the British capital. And in London, it is best to live in the boroughs of Islington and Camden, with Hackney coming a slightly distant third. South of the river there is less on offer and things become even more sparse in outer east and west London. But those remote and unworldly halls can be exceptionally pleasant places, where you can disturb a table of chattering widows, or meet with an intelligent male adventurer who has lived in various parts of Africa, America and Europe.
It is within comfortable travelling distance of King’s Cross that our existence is found at its most abundant. This is the best place to be poor in the whole world, and the whole world, by virtue of the internet, knows it. The pop-ins are among the more important factors drawing immigrants to Britain, and the impetus to provide them is driven not so much by charity as by the effort to make England, and especially London, a cheap place to live in. It is therefore an essentially political movement to increase the diversity of our society, and fills me with the gravest doubts while I take full advantage of it.
The national groups at the soup kitchens do not mix. The eastern Europeans, for instance, talking loudly at their separate tables, demanding immediate service and sometimes breaking into a hearty fight, will admit no one to their company. However, that makes it easier to avoid them.
We melancholy folk are usually civilised with each other. Discussion of the respective merits of each centre, and their precise location, lead on to enquiries about the history of our superfluous lives. But we quickly grow cross with one another if the conversation becomes too personal. By a tacit agreement, we never invite fellow pop-inners to our homes. We interact at the soup kitchens and in the streets and on the buses that lead to them, and we do not even go to the pub together, so that we advance and retreat endlessly to and from friendship.
I keep myself to a maximum of three pop-ins a day. I know one person, a tortured anorexic, who attends about nine. But he has to get up at half-past five in the morning and does not reach wherever he lives until ten at night. His life is the most arduous job.
By contrast, I designate certain days as pop-in free. And once I went on a Saturday evening from the soup kitchens to the 5th View Restaurant at the Piccadilly Waterstones. As I fought my way through the crowded foyer towards the lift, and then stood jam-packed with the others as we went up, I wondered whether I had made the right decision. But when I was seated at my table with its beautiful night-time view over London, with a fine book to peruse, and was waiting for my happy-hour cocktails and bruschetta, then I knew a spiritual freedom that the pop-ins can never provide.
For my life is not all jam. I have been threatened by hard-bitten white Londoners, Rastas wearing enormous tea-cosies and handsome Poles whose every second word is ‘kurwa’. And the volunteers, after moving in their vast herds up and down the stairs at the Christmas crisis centres, have been reluctant to answer my queries, or have told me off if I tried to take too many doughnuts. There is an undeniable erosion of self-respect in pop-innery.
Do I ever feel guilty? Well, I think you have to look at the motives of those who organise my free ride. They may be tax dodgers, or trying to win social and professional kudos, or trying to meet a partner or escape one. They want to give and I want to take. And I do stack the odd chair at the end of a session. I donate my more useless books. Really, I feel contempt rather than guilt when contemplating the fact that society is providing me with a lifestyle such as quite a handsome salary would not buy. Bring on your soap bars and your wet wipes and your free socks in winter, you fools, that’s what I say.
Yet I don’t think I can live like this for good. If there are ever really serious food queues to contend with, as there may be under the coming Corbyn government, I will be too old to stand so long.
I shall have to retire to one of those heartless foreign countries, with their endless demands to pay. But, oh, I am well prepared! I have more toothbrushes than I could use in many lifetimes and my wardrobe is packed with magnificent clothes, and the classics of world literature are piled high on my chest of drawers — all, in part, courtesy of charity. I just have to find some way of getting my loot to Thailand.
And will I feel no nostalgia for the pop-ins? Am I that ungracious? Perish the thought. I know happiness, or at least contentment, when I experience it. And whenever in the unknown future I see a twinkling lady coming to serve me a pumpkin pie, and sink down gratefully in an armchair to deal with it, I shall think with great pleasure about the charming days I spent in London, doing the rounds, when I began to grow old.