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29 January 2020

Will Self’s Diary: Seeking the company of London’s homeless, and the gamble of post-Brexit Britain

Searching with an outreach worker for the rough sleepers hiding in flower beds and electricity cupboards, our eyes are drawn to the City skyline.

By Will Self

The past six months I’ve been volunteering for a homeless charity – going out, at night, with a professional outreach worker, to locate rough sleepers and offer them some sort of help, whether that be a hostel bed or an appointment with a lawyer to try to get them settled status before Brexit. It’s now government policy that indigent EU nationals should, whenever possible, be sent back to their countries of origin – as if the streets weren’t a hostile enough environment to begin with. Word of this has spread throughout what we must, in the modern idiom, term “the homeless community”, such that they fear getting indoors, even in bitterly cold weather. Poland already has a sort of boot-camp rehab for returning street alcoholics and addicts – but it’s the shame involved in facing their families, as much as the toughness of this regime, that’s preventing these men (and they are mostly men) from accessing what help there is on offer.

Over Christmas and the New Year, the homeless become media stars for a few weeks – everyone wants to get down with them, from Evgeny Lebedev, the philanthropic proprietor of the London Evening Standard, to the BBC, whose Radio 4 Christmas appeal was for the St Martin-in-the-Fields homeless project. There’s also the excellent Crisis at Christmas, which pretty much ensures that during the festive season the good burghers of London don’t have to clap eyes on all those have-nots, while they’re hurrying to have as much as possible for themselves. Why are the homeless such a popular cause? I’d argue it’s because they’re pitiable and no threat to anyone, while also – unlike the in-work impoverished – being manifestly always with us. Thomas Hobbes said charity exists to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience – and what better way to lighten that load than putting a penny in the prematurely old man or woman’s hat?


London’s compass

For my own part I don’t really regard the volunteering as charity – because I get far more out of it than they do. It’s a Stygian sort of flânerie that I’m engaged in: plying the skeleton key to gain access to the bulky council blocks that still rear up from the Victorian brick hugger-mugger of Bermondsey, Southwark and the Elephant; then climbing the stairs in search of paranoid psychotics who’ve immured themselves in electricity cupboards, or alcoholics who are curled up in flower beds beside knock-kneed loggias.

Often, my companion and I will find ourselves on the upper-floor balcony of a block, staring out over the City of London. Renzo Piano’s Shard is the giant compass point around which we revolve, and while many reading this may feel an instinctive antipathy to the building as just another of the banal forms that finance capital assumes in the contemporary city, I must report that it often looks beautiful in the middle of the night – especially when it’s a little misty, and the upper 20 storeys, which are discretely lit, appear disconnected from the rest: a spaceship, either coming into land, or else departing.

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Bringing home the bunce

I remember meeting the late Irvine Sellar, the Shard’s developer, at his office somewhere in the fifties (by which I mean the floors of the building), and him sweeping his chalk-striped arm wide to indicate all the other hypertrophied desktop toys that have come to constitute the vast majority of the City’s built environment: “See that, Will!” he exulted. “It’s all flight capital – and frankly, I can’t get enough of it.” Well, Irvine’s gone now – but after a four-year hiatus, the money is once again flying back into the City: a key part of Boris’s “bounce” has always been his willingness to go after the bunce, which is what City getters (slang for traders) call the amounts they cream off from the myriad transactions conducted under their aegis. Whether the flight capital will come into land in sufficient amounts to underwrite our flight from the European Union remains to be seen – but at night the juxtaposition between the airy fantasias of late capitalism and the brute reality of those left behind becomes as much surreal as grotesque.


A murderous history

The psychogeography – or should I say psychopathology – of the area around London Bridge has become increasingly feverish in the past few years. First one jihadist attack in 2017 claimed eight lives and then a second took two more in exactly the same place last year. The latter attack began at an offender rehabilitation conference being held in the Fishmongers’ Hall, and this too seems grotesque: the stabbed being attacked by the putative stab-nots – almost as if it’s the very environs that are summoning up these juxtapositions. Perhaps the most grotesque juxtaposition is embodied by – and inside of – the Fishmongers’ Hall itself. These City livery companies once controlled medieval London’s economy by enacting professional closure on vital trades. Now they’re ceremonial boondoggles for City getters, giving them the opportunity to dress up and relieve their consciences in one charitable way or another. The Fishmongers’ most prized possession resides in a reinforced plexiglas box in the hall of the Hall: it’s the long, evil-looking dagger with which one of their noble forerunners, William Walworth, the then mayor of London, fatally stabbed Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt.


Built to last?

Yes, 14th-century London was definitely a hostile environment for migrants from the countryside – just as 21st-century London is for their equivalents. Post-Brexit Britain may turn out to be a beacon of justice and equality in an increasingly dark and minatory world, or, like the Shard, it may be a large and seemingly permanent structure that actually has a design specification which means every key structural component will have to be replaced within the next 75 years. Either that, or we’ll have to tear the glassy palace formed by finance down – and start over again.

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This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out