Liquid rules of sympathy

For rain to be proper rain, it has to be moving and to keep moving — just like the tramp Alice Oswal

How do you define rain? There are indoor definitions (bespectacled, spoken behind glass) and there are outdoor ones, which include the smell of the rain and the various ways of avoiding it.

The tramp (he calls himself a tramp with pride) is a living dictionary of outdoor definitions. “What I will say about the rain, being on the streets, is you haven’t got the facilities to dry yourself, so you might be wet for a couple of days.

“Invariably, what I do is just get a change of clothes from a charity and bin the rest.”

He is immaculately dressed. 

He says a tramp is a dignified man, never aggressive, a rebel not a victim, a nomad not homeless, “because homeless is a state of mind. Your home is wherever you feel comfortable” and he can be comfortable anywhere.

“My favourite place in the rain was in the directors’ box in Penzance football club, looking out across the pitch. You’ve got this noise and you can see it in front of you hitting the ground. You’re almost living it, you’re almost part of it, really. When you’re in a bus shelter or a shop doorway, you’ll get gangs being beaten up and kids abused, but one thing about the rain is it almost acts as a barrier, it’s a form of protection, this massive noise all round you.”

It’s a relief to hear the rain. It’s the sound of billions of drops, all equal, all equally committed to falling, like a sudden outbreak of democracy. Water, when it hits the ground, instantly becomes a puddle or rivulet or flood.

Rain (which the indoor dictionaries call “the condensed vapour of the atmosphere falling in drops large enough to attain a sensible velocity”) is only rain while it’s falling.

Rain has to be moving, like a tramp. “Yes, a tramp is just someone on a journey, that’s the crux of it. For 30 years, I’ve kept moving . . . You know how you do when you’re sleeping on the streets – you become absolutely feral, whereby you never wash. Now, I’ve got this thing that if you shower every day and you stop washing you start smelling, but there’s a stage where you go past smelling – the bacteria’s got nowhere to go.

“I don’t know what it is when you’ve been wearing the same clothes for a year and it rains and you suddenly get soaking wet and it’s permeating your body as well, which hasn’t been washed for a year; then it just recovers all this massive smell – not fusty, just so thick a smell; like, I suppose, a charity shop but times a hundred.”

Stormy weather

He speaks with precision, laying down a system on his thoughts, putting up parentheses like makeshift shelters against a storm of impressions. He’s careful. He won’t let his troubles get the better of him; he keeps his mind covered.

“Selling the Big Issue, when it starts to rain, light to medium rain, people’s sympathy levels go up slightly, but when the rain gets past medium towards heavy, your sales collapse. It’s like the sympathy levels get to an apex and it’s quite interesting to see them shrink.

“It’s a fascinating thing when you see someone get immune to compassion. I remember going to this day centre and there was a new member of staff, very caring at first, full of energy and wanting to do something about the plight of the homeless.

“Three months later, I came back and it was lashing down with rain. The door was locked and he was sat there doing the crossword.

“D’you know, he insisted on finishing his clue before he opened that door. I could see him through the glass thinking, ‘Oh look, it’s raining . . .’”

Alice Oswald is an award-winning poet. She writes the nature column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Islamophobia on trial