By Bernie Bell
Years ago, I worked in the Aberystwyth UBO (are they still called that?). There was a man who would turn up now and then, called Hodgkin. I’m not being rude – that was the name he was known by. Hodgkin was a tramp.
There don’t appear to be as many tramps about as there used to be – maybe people who have nowhere to live, stay put more these days, or they wouldn’t get any help at all.
Hodgkin would spend his time, wandering , then, he’d turn up to make a claim at Aberystwyth UBO. He did have a right to receive some money – not much – but he didn’t need, or expect, much. Some of my colleagues didn’t like to have to deal with him – were suspicious of him, and….he did smell bad. He was ok, there was no harm or meanness in Hodgkin, in fact, he was an interesting man to talk with, when he’d stay on a subject. I think it also put them off to see him rummaging in the ash trays for fag ends, which he would then make into very thin, very flimsy cigarettes. None of them ever thought give him a fag!, but they thought it was disgusting that he used these ‘second hand’ fags.
Anyway – what it comes down to is, that Hodgkin liked his way of life – he chose it. Then, one of the student halls of residence for the University, became available as a hostel for the homeless. All the paper work was done, and Hodgkin was allocated a room in the new hostel. He sat in the room for about 3 hours. He then called by the UBO to tell me that he was leaving – couldn’t stand the stuffy air and the inactivity. That was that, he went back to being a tramp. I don’t know what happened to him – probably died one very cold night, somewhere.
The other thing he did that disconcerted people was, he’d sit on top of one of those telephone exchange boxes, in the town centre, and just stare at people. Didn’t do anything, just stared, but….folk don’t like that – Why’s he staring? What’s he staring at?
I think this is becoming a general ramble about tramps, triggered by the idea of homelessness, and why it happens and why some people choose it as a way of life.
When I was a little girl, my Dad was the caretaker of a school, a convent school. The nuns used to give tramps food, if they called by, and the tramps used to leave marks on the gates of the school, to let each other know that it was a ‘good touch’. The nuns didn’t make the tramps pray or pretend to be holy, to get the food! They did, just, feed them – no questions asked.
When Dad was an itinerant farmworker, in his youth, he was put off the Sally Army because he was expected to join in the holy stuff, to get a feed. I don’t know if that’s so, these days, but it put him off the Sally Army for life.
My other memory of tramps, is of when I was at University, in Lampeter, mid Wales. There was a group of, an older man, an older woman, and a big, strong, younger man. I don’t know what their relationship was to each other – it was none of my business, and they didn’t tell me. Again, these people were good to talk with – I got on with them, I never saw real nastiness in the nature of any of them – the older man had a sharp sense of humour about his fellow man – but no nastiness. They came into town now and then, and got drunk. I’d come across them sitting on a bench across from The Black Lion, and the older man would disconcert folk by showing his tattooed legs! Hard to tell the tattoos from the varicose veins. Sometimes I’d come across them in other parts of the area, that was their life. My boyfriend at the time really didn’t like it that I had anything to do with them – stuffy bugger.
I suppose this has become some kind of musings about the outsiders in our society. The ones who are homeless – for whatever reason – often grubby, a bit strange, disconcerting to the people who behave themselves on a daily basis.
I could be unctuous and say “There but for the grace of God”.
What stories there were behind why the person who went to school and had a job and thought life lay ahead of them, found themselves sleeping in disused railway sidings, I don’t know – there will have been some harrowing stories, no doubt, and also, no doubt, many that were just stories of something happening, sometime, which meant that something slipped, and next thing – the person found themselves……sleeping in a disused railway siding – if they were lucky that night.
All it takes maybe, is some little twist, something slips somewhere. It is a case of – there but for the grace of God, or Fate, or whatever you want to call It. And that’s why the ones who behave themselves on a daily basis do try to look after the ones who slipped sideways sometime.
Are there not so many tramps now? There are homeless people, who do, desperately , want a home – are there still tramps, who, pretty much choose that life, for one reason or another?
Remember Edna the inebriate woman? I could easily be her, or dead, if it wasn’t for the steady people. Thank heaven of the steady people, who stay on the track and watch out for those who don’t.
George Bailey slipped aside, for a short time, but Clarence got him through it. Who is Clarence? Is Clarence, some aspect of George – the aspect we need to connect with, to get us back on track? Or is Clarence, simply….an angel?
It got me thinking there, thinking about the outsiders, the ones who slip. Some get back on the track again, one way or another, some don’t – some take to wandering, some take a way out. Some find a refuge, whether in a fellow human being, or a place which suits them and their ways. Outsiders. Fellow human beings. We’re a mixed lot, with more that connects us than separates us.
And these days, posh premises are putting spikes in their windows and doorways, so that homeless people can’t sleep there. Do the people cementing in the spikes, ever think “There but for the grace of God” Or “Do as you would be done by”? Presumably not – we tend to think we’re immune, that it could never happen to us. Well it can, and it does.
One final story – I have to include it. In Lowestoft, there was a man who was a beggar. He’d sit with his dog , in the town centre, and people took pity on him, and on the dog. Then….it turned out that he had a house, and a wife and family! It was all a scam – like some kind of medieval ‘begging business’. This isn’t a Daily Mail reader reaction – “These people are all pretending” thing – it’s true! I thought it was a bit of a hoot – entirely wrong, of course, but a bit of a hoot all the same. I can’t help being on the side of someone with that kind of cheek! And, as I say, begging used to be big business, way back, before there was a welfare state, and people started to look after each other in a more organized way.
I hope we hold on to that, but, better still, I look to people being able to, as George Bailey hoped “ work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath.”
We were heading that way, but, as a society, appear to be collectively going off the tracks. There is always hope – Zuzu’s petals.