On a damp Tuesday lunchtime at the north end of Regent Street, George is working his beat as one of one of London’s Big Issue sellers. I have not come to interview him, but his experience is so relevant to what I will be talking about for the next two hours that I feel duty-bound to ask him about his life, and how things have been in the past 15 mesi.
When he is not in the centre of the city, he tells me, he lives in a hostel for homeless people near Canary Wharf, five or six miles to the east. “Lockdown was hard," lui dice, “’cos I couldn’t sell the magazine, and I needed to pay rent to the hostel. And the isolation was really difficult: a little room, and I had to pretty much stay in there, and only go out for, piace, an hour a day. I went for weeks on end not speaking to anyone.” Does he have family? “No, no. Not in London. My parents are dead; my brother and sister are abroad. One in Canada, one in Australia. So it’s been isolating, sai?"
He gestures at the book I have been leafing through, and the woman sitting next to me, who wrote it. “Let me take you by the hand,” he half-sings, “and to the promised land.” He breaks into a laugh, before saying goodbye and disappearing into a branch of Caffè Nero.
Let Me Take You By the Hand is the latest book by Jennifer Kavanagh, a writer, teacher and social activist with a long personal history of immersion in London’s street life, and of work with the people who fall through the city’s cracks. The title is taken from the folk singer Ralph McTell’s social-realist classic, Streets of London; the book’s key inspiration is the Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew’s exhaustive work London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1861 and full of portraits of life at the capital’s social edges. George – whom Kavanagh has come to know well – is one of her book’s huge cast, along with about 200 others, from street performers who work as living statues, through sex workers and drug dealers, to people sleeping on the streets, and others suffering the cruelties of the immigration system.
Many are victims of violence and abuse. Some have gone from earning six-figure salaries to sleeping rough, thanks to addiction and relationship breakdown. Others have lost children, something highlighted by an ex-Coldstream Guardsman called Stephen, whom she encounters outside All Souls church, near BBC Broadcasting House. “He said it very plainly: ‘The death of a child is something you just can’t cope with.’ There are two or three people in the book who lost children.” She sighs. “Just mind-blowing.”
Some of her other stories of homelessness are just as centred on loss, but are more complex. “There’s a man in the book called Darren, who I saw the other day; it was sad to see him back, selling the Big Issue. He’s had five children and given them all up for adoption. He’s in an awful state. I first met him years and years ago. He said to me that his partner was expecting a baby, and I collected money from my meeting to buy baby clothes for him. Then, about a year later, I said: ‘How’s the baby? And he said: 'Oh, we had to give her up.’”
She finds a quote from him in the book, which I read aloud: “My mum, she’s an alcoholic, so she just couldn’t handle looking after me and my sisters. Don’t do family. Brought myself up, can be done. I got eight sisters but I don’t see none of them, they all got adopted. They got their lives. Yeah, I’ve got five children. Same partner, together 10 years … No, not together now … It’s better. Prefer being on my own. All the children in care.” Darren, she reminds me, was a looked-after child himself.
Kavanagh is 74 and lives alone, in a mansion-block flat next to a pub two minutes’ walk from where we meet. Born and raised in London, she is a gentle, empathic presence, prone to careful pauses for thought, and answers full of nuances. Today, she is dressed in the functional clothes – solid trainers, an insulated purple jacket – of someone used to walking around the city. That reflects how she gathered the book’s raw material: hiking through the capital “nearly every day” for 15 mesi, either with the intention of getting into a specific story, or talking to whoever she happened to find.
Her fieldwork – which was helped by two other interviewers, who contributed additional material – ended just as the pandemic began, but Covid has only highlighted the deep social issues she portrays. “I wanted to give people evidence of all the inequalities – which until the last year, most people haven’t been very aware of," lei dice. “I wanted to reveal the people behind the uniforms – people who are mostly invisible to passersby, Oms do everything – security guards, people polishing the brass outside the pub, street cleaners.
“And homelessness was always at the centre of it, because I just feel so passionately about it. I used to get so angry, and think: ‘How can we just take it for granted that we have people on the streets?’ We didn’t have when I was growing up. I can’t stand it. To me, it’s just unbearable.”
Most people, I suggest, are at least partly desensitised to it. We all know the awful reality of homelessness, but most of the time, when we see someone sleeping rough, we don’t feel the kind of moral pang we ought to.
“I know. That’s exactly what concerns me.” Is she different? Does she feel it? “Not always. Mostly.”
Does she give homeless people money? “I usually buy people something to eat. And I’m uneasy with that predicament. I think we all are. I occasionally give people money. I don’t like having a moral stance about: 'Oh, they’ll just spend it on drugs.’”
It implies passing judgment, doesn’t it? And if you haven’t ever slept rough, maybe you’re not entitled to do that. “Exactly. Exactly. I remember one woman running after me in the street, asking me for money. I gave her a tenner. And the astonishment and delight … Sometimes generosity is a huge motivator. People maybe feel that if someone is prepared to give them ten pounds, they themselves might be worth something.”
Until 1997, Kavanagh owned and ran a thriving literary agency, con 80 or so clients, including many successful novelists and a handful of Booker prize nominees. Then everything changed. “I’d wanted to give up agenting for some time," lei dice. “Anyone in publishing will tell you the same – it had become more and more difficult to get real novelists and storytellers published in an ongoing way. It all just became celebrity, celebrity, celebrity. So I’d had enough.”
There had also been upheavals in her personal and family life. “The breakup of my marriage in the late 80s. The breakup of the next relationship. My daughter getting an illness.” And eventually, lei dice, “in spiritual terms, I was cracked open, and able to access another dimension”. She sold the agency and used the proceeds to fund a long period of work and activism focused on some of our most ingrained social problems, spread over the next 12 anni.
What pushed her decisively in this direction was finding Quakerism, the non-hierarchical, open offshoot of Christianity that often emphasises being active in society. “I was finding myself in tears every time I went into a church – for a christening, or to look at the architecture. ho pensato: ‘What on earth’s going on here?’ And I really had no choice but to pursue it, so I went to various churches. I found out that wasn’t for me: ‘Sit down, now stand up’, and all that. But I remembered seeing the sign outside a Quaker meeting house, and I walked in, and I found peace. I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone about it, but I started reading about it, and I was absolutely gobsmacked. ho pensato: ‘I didn’t know religion could be like this.’”
Like what? “Well, it wasn’t why I first went there, but it helped me recover my youthful idealism. I think most people would like to make a difference, but they don’t know how to. And when I arrived at Quakers, I found people who were doing exactly that – locally and collectively. So I jumped in with both feet.”
One of the most important aspects of her new life was the three years she spent in charge of a Quaker-run community centre in the East End, where she oversaw mother-and-toddler groups, a regular gathering of women from a diverse cross-section of the local community, programmes that brought food to people suffering loneliness and isolation, and a trailblazing programme of so-called micro-credit, whereby people with ideas that might benefit the local community could access small loans – something she eventually took to such countries as Madagascar, Ghana and South Africa. She worked in prisons, studying the links between incarceration, education and homelessness.
She also started the Open Wing Trust, which helps people who want to make the drastic kind of life change she did. “I could afford to do it," lei dice. “I had a younger friend who did a similar thing, but had to borrow the money. I thought it would be really good to facilitate similar things for other people, some of whom have been prisoners. One guy wanted to become a music therapist, and we bought him his first keyboard. There was a former gang member who worked to stop people being in gangs, so we helped him get started.”
When I write about community activism, I tell her, I’m always struck by how many of the people making a difference are women over 50.
“That’s interesting," lei dice. And does it sound familiar? “Well, it’s partly to do with who has the time and inclination. But I certainly think that [the psychoanalyst] Jung had it right when he talked about the second half of life. That’s when a lot of people realise what their life should be about.”
In her early days of social activism, one particular experience changed her for good. “I was told to coordinate the soup runs they [the Quakers] were doing. That was the real epiphany for me. I couldn’t believe the extent of it, or the conditions people were living in.”
She was also struck by the kindness of people who, on the face of it, could not afford it. “When I was first doing the soup runs, there was one really cold January night – and there was a woman, probably in her 50s, in a really skimpy cotton dress. She asked us for a blanket. We’d run out. And there was a guy further down the Strand who said: “She can have mine.’ I said: ‘What will you do?’ And he said: ‘She needs it more than me, and what’s life if you can’t give a little love?’ And I thought: How many of us could do that? I learned hugely. It was extraordinary.”
After more than a year of the pandemic, how has it affected people living the kind of lives she has written about? “No one’s really doing anything about destitution," lei dice. She then mentions the government’s so-called Everyone In initiative, which found shelter for people living on the streets during the pandemic’s first couple of months, but was not repeated. And even that scheme, lei dice, could be cold and inhumane. Once again she mentions Darren. “When I saw him the other day, Egli ha detto: ‘They offered me a place in a hotel, but I would have to put my dog in kennels.’ I just thought: ‘Bloody hell – how can you do that? How can you not see how precious his dog is to him?’ I think that lack of sensitivity and understanding is still there.”
Once we have finished the interview, Kavanagh walks me to Fitzroy Place, an office and residential development a stone’s throw from Oxford Street, completed in 2015. Its towering buildings are surrounded by the calm silence of wealth; a two-bedroom flat here sells for about £2.5m. She points out a patch of pavement nudging one of its outer edges, where she met a homeless woman called Carrie, who was 36 and said she had been homeless for 21 anni, having experienced domestic violence and time in the care system. She was living in a tent.
“That really upset me, because she was only about a street away from where I live, and she invited me in. That was a really, really moving thing, to sit in that tent. But I was free to get up and go away, back to my comfortable place.”
One thing Carrie said stuck in her head. When she repeats it to me, the words sound almost like a prayer. They also capture the glaring inequality that defines both London and almost everything she portrays in her book: “I just want what everyone else has.”
Let Me Take You By the Hand by Jennifer Kavanagh is published by Little, Marrone. To buy for £14.78 (RRP £16.99) vai a bookshop.theguardian.com. P&Potrebbero essere applicati dei costi.
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