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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide