God and Melanie Phillips Will Cure ‘Sick’ Britain!

David Cameron, returning from his holiday in Tuscany earlier this week, declared a “fightback” against the rioters in England, vowing he’d do “whatever it takes” to restore order to the streets after four days of rioting and looting. He had to respond decisively – for there were significant questions over his leadership after he seemed more concerned with his choice of tennis coach than the state of the nation – and so he cast himself in the manner of Churchill, the brave and wise leader confronting the evil at our door. And yet this evil was not the threat posed by a powerful foreign entity, Nazi Germany, but rather by a weak domestic one, the rage of an underclass for which we are all responsible.

Melanie Phillips, however, believes that she and her biblical, orthodox, conservative and right-wing friends are not responsible, the blame resting solely with the former Labour government and the liberal intelligentsia. And so she, the grande dame of the Daily Mail, wrote yesterday, with all the demented glee of a fanatic, that the riots were “the all-too-predictable outcome of a three-decade liberal experiment which tore up virtually every basic social value.” She concluded with great hyperbole – Phillips’ forte, the lady clearly a frustrated novelist – that “within the smouldering embers of our smashed and burned-out cities, we can only look upon the ruins of the Britain we have so dearly loved: the Britain that once led the world towards civilisation, but is now so tragically leading the way out.”

These rioters were a ragtag army at best, and hardly wreaked the level of devastation which Phillips’ incendiary, and might I say irresponsible, journalism proclaims. But then, for her, it appears to be less about the search for, and portrayal of, truth – her journalistic mandate is increasingly unclear – and more about the enforcement of her irrepressible moral agenda. Perhaps alongside her Orwell prize Phillips ought also to be awarded the prize of ‘High Priestess of Fire and Brimstone’, and worshipped as such. And her closing statement about Britain as it once was, leading “the world towards civilisation”, though it panders perfectly to the readers of her rag, a daft nationalistic bunch, is deeply subjective. Many Africans and Indians saw, and continue to see, Britain less as a bringer of civilisation during colonialism and more a purveyor of greed and barbarism, though the committed Judeo-Christian Phillips is unwilling to acknowledge this darker aspect of her kind and creed, which included the use of a “metal castrating instrument” to cut off the testicles and fingers of the Mau Mau in Kenya in the 1950s and the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters including women and children in Jallianwala Bagh, India, prior to Independence. Where is the civilisation here, my dear Melanie, in this “most civilised, most gentle and law-abiding” of countries?

Phillips goes on to turn her maniacal zeal to “fatherless boys who are consumed by an existential rage and desperate emotional need, and who take out the damage done to them by lashing out from infancy at everyone around them.” This would seem to imply that boys with fathers cannot suffer from such rage, which makes me something of an oddball, as I carried bundles of it and still do, in fact frequently share it – this existential rage – with my father. For this is what makes me human, this sometimes rageful search for meaning. Phillips sums up this theme of “fatherless boys” by calling “lone parenthood a tragedy for individuals, and a catastrophe for society.” And yet I see nothing tragic in my ex and her son, whom she brought up predominantly on her own, she a wonderful and loving single mother and he a great young man with a good heart. In fact, I see something rather more tragic in parents who, despite hating one another, stay together for the sake of the children, this arguably a far greater recipe for future violence and rage.

The Mail’s grande dame believes that the youths who went ‘on the rob’ are not victims of poverty but moral collapse. All of us are on the brink of moral decadence and savagery, our natural state an Hobbesian one, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and hence the only thing which will keep us in check is a regular dose of “moral concepts that underlie our civilisation”, in Phillips words, preached to us on high from the pulpit. Will this, I wonder, therefore include instruction on how to operate the metal castrating instrument and how to massacre innocent women and children? Phillips is convinced that we need saving and only her God can provide this. Yet her God has had his time – he failed us long ago – and that is why we turned away from him, embraced liberalism and chose to live in a Godless country. Why should his reinstatement be successful now? What Phillips proposes represents little more than the perpetual delusion of a religious mind that is so entrenched in its own belief and dogma that it is incapable of seeing another away of living and being. I’d be inclined to look, rather, to the work of John N. Gray for our salvation. In his work, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, he argues that our salvation perhaps lies in learning to see that, far from being the centre of the world, we humans are just other animals, albeit deluded ones, part of a self-regulating system, Earth, that has no need of humanity, does not exist for the sake of humanity, and will regulate itself in ignorance of humanity’s fate.

Phillips posits that “welfare dependency created the entitlement culture that the looters so egregiously display. It taught them that the world owed them a living. It taught them that their actions had no consequences. And it taught them that the world revolved around themselves.” She forgets quite how and why this entitlement culture came about – she would do well to read Orwell – the postwar British government finally acknowledging the terrible class inequity and social injustice in Britain, the rich having exploited the poor for far too long, which led to the formation of the welfare state and a redistribution of wealth, both of which were, and remain, right and proper. There remains some way to go, of course. We must still endure the likes of Philip Green, whose greed and tax evasion has no bounds, and numerous footballers and other celebrities who hoard their coppers, but then, at least Mr. Green and many of his millionaire chums are working class folk. Perhaps Melanie believes that the unfairness of prewar Britain made for a better society, the underclass she so despises subjugated to such an extent that it dared not even suggest that it might be entitled to what the rich are. Because this is the crux of it, you see – poor, unemployed and marginalised angry youths looting, stealing goods which the rich do feel entitled to, which the rich do take for granted. How dare they rise up? I hear Phillips cry. Their oppressed ancestors would never have done.

I am neither a “left-wing politician” nor a “middle-class ideologue”, but rather someone who believes in a fair and compassionate society and will fight the likes of Melanie Phillips and her hard-hearted, hateful and hypocritical Conservatives to the very end. Her spiteful wrath even extends to the Archbishop of Canterbury, asking derisively whether, “Anyone care to guess what he will eventually say about them [the riots]? Quite.” How ironic. For Rowan Williams possesses what Phillips so desperately lacks, a quality which will heal any sickness in society – namely love. Feel the love, Melanie!

A Decadent and Murderous Underclass!

A Mail on Sunday poll this week reveals that “more than half of Britons want a return of the death penalty,” and this prompts me to reflect on a recent prison visit I made, in order to read from, and discuss, one of my novels – a meditation on life and death. As I sat and discussed the themes of the work with a group of inmates, the majority of them lifers, it dawned on me that there was more truth here, in this prison library, than there was on the outside – beyond these cells, bars, walls and perimeter fences – in the offices of politicians and journalists.

The men before me, hard and troubled men who had committed violent crime, and in some cases had killed, talked frankly of what they had done, and why they did what they did. If the Mail on Sunday had its way, however, more than half of them would now be dead, their fates sealed with a lethal injection, the preferred method of the newspaper’s intelligent and compassionate readers. The rag prides itself on encouraging “public debate in a society where hardly anyone has been taught how to think, while millions have been taught what to think,” in the words of its chief columnist Peter Hitchens, yet at the same time profits from a populist, conservative and bigoted editorial line – for this sells the most newspapers – and is utterly intolerant of any opinion which contradicts its own. It would far rather its readers not think, because if they did, its sales would likely plummet.

Talking to these inmates and hearing their different stories, it was clear that their violent acts were not the product of evil, as the likes of Hitchens would have us believe, but rather were born out of a personal horror, of a kind that the privileged politician or journalist cannot, in his worst nightmare, conceive of, though he is still ready and willing to pass judgment on these fallen men, sure in the knowledge that they must be condemned not understood. When the inmate Jimmy pulled out a pump-action shotgun and shot the man who had sexually assaulted his daughter, he did so not in a cool gesture of premeditated evil but in a desperate fit of blind rage.

I am tired of the righteous rhetoric from the likes of Hitchens, who believes that the British justice system has been made soft by social liberals and cultural Marxists – of which I am one – prison a mere breeze for its inhabitants. It is one thing, Peter, to visit Wormwood Scrubs, but quite another to be incarcerated there. I doubt you’d last long, even with the apparent luxuries of a television set or video game console. You’re not mentally, or indeed physically, tough enough. In his work, A Brief History of Crime, Hitchens argues that poverty and other forms of social deprivation do not cause crime, that the former principle of “due punishment of responsible persons” be reinstated i.e. the reintroduction of capital punishment, and that we give up, once and for all, on namby-pamby modern theories of rehabilitation.

Hitchens, and other social conservatives, such as Theodore Dalrymple aka Anthony Daniels, insist that the only remedy for our increasingly criminal society is the abandonment of any notion of rehabilitation and an immediate return to Victorian justice and punishment in the Puritan mould. Hence, the only way to deal with a murderer is to kill him, and if the Old Testament’s eye for an eye cannot be met, then at the very least he needs to be hurled in solitary for the remainder of his despicable life with nothing but a copy of the King James Bible for solace. For in Hitchens’ world, moral virtue can only be acquired through the practice and discipline of religious faith, and capital punishment is consistent with the Christian belief in forgiveness – though God knows how!

The young Peter might have been an atheist like his older brother – he was also a Trotskyite – yet his growing disillusionment with socialism pushed him, first, to political conservatism, then, to God. This is an all too familiar path for the bitter Conservative, the liberal and progressive heart turned so sour that it now despises what it used to love. Hitchens and Dalrymple, though the latter is an atheist, are one and the same in this respect. They blame liberal intellectuals for minimising the responsibility of individuals for their own actions and undermining traditional mores, both of which have, according to the po-faced right-wing couple, contributed to the formation within Britain, and other rich countries, of an underclass afflicted by violence, criminality, welfare dependency and drug abuse. And yet was the inmate Jimmy – he subsequently died in prison – really a product of this new underclass, and did liberal intellectuals make it permissible for him to take revenge in the manner he did?

The answer to both is a resounding, No! Jimmy did what he did out of rage, a rage born out of love for his daughter, the thought of her violation unbearable. Was it more likely that Jimmy, a working class lad born into abject poverty in postwar Britain, would resort to violence in defense of his family, than, let us say, the privately educated Peter Hitchens, born in Malta and of sound military stock. Yes, of course it was. Jimmy was born into violence, it commonly employed by his family and class to resolve all manner of grievances and disputes, and though this does not justify what he did it surely goes some way to explaining it. And though the likes of Dalrymple would posit that Jimmy is the classic manifestation of this dreadful underclass – this mass of nihilistic, decadent and welfare dependent poor people given license by Champagne-sipping liberals to live badly and destructively – I would posit, rather, that Jimmy, far from brazenly taking the law into his own hands and acting with all the characteristic ignorance, arrogance and irresponsibility of the underclass to which he purportedly belongs, was consumed by such rage that he, quite literally, lost his mind and committed an awful act. He talked about what had happened to him when I met him, and wrote about his violence in subsequent letters, taking full responsibility for his actions, expressing deep remorse, and eager to make amends as best he could.

This is a difficult notion for social conservatives to grasp as they tend to be cold-hearted, unsympathetic beasts. Short of warmth and compassion in their own hearts, and hence the capacity to forgive, they struggle to comprehend how a man like Jimmy could be so swept up in the whirl and turmoil of anger and grief that he could do as he did. And so they then conclude – so sure are they that we must all live a certain way, their way – that something like capital punishment is an effective deterrent. Had the death penalty been in place, would this have deterred Jimmy from pulling the trigger of his shotgun? No, it would not. Because such was the state of his mind and heart that practicable and reasonable considerations about how he might be punished carried no weight at that fateful moment.

I pray that Hitchens never gets his way. For if he did, we’d be forever subject to his pedagogic discipline, the great fuminator demanding that we live differently i.e. his way, and that any other way is improper, bankrupt and immoral. But I also pray he does not get his way because I would rather live in a compassionate society, one driven to understand and forgive, not condemn and punish.

The State of Modern Fiction

What the fuck is going on with modern fiction?! I’m dying to read that wonderful book, which has a bloody big heart, yet I cannot find it. Gifted writers I greatly admire like William Boyd are now forced to churn out books like Restless, an all-too-familiar spy thriller that will be forgotten in no time, written for a pay check and no more. I can hear William’s agent whispering in his ear, “Look, just give me something I can get on Richard & Judy, okay. The friggin chimps in Brazzaville Beach aren’t cutting it. The British public are not interested in Central Africa and its primate inhabitants. Give them something more familiar, Will, something they can relate to. Yes, another World War II spy yarn, that will sell. The market will lap it up. This will be your bestseller!”

And so writers of the quality of Boyd are forced to pen boring, mediocre fare – yes, commercially-driven fiction conceived for the market first and the committed reader second – the kind of unremarkable books which those of us who believe in, and have a passion for, literature have bought and read a hundred times but never come close to finishing. Hell, we don’t even get a third of the way through them. And why? Because they are unremarkable, are not alternative, do not inspire. We know these books well. We pluck them off the shelves of Waterstone’s and WH Smith with great anticipation, our hearts beating excitedly. We dive into them as soon as we get home, settling ourselves on the settee and reading the first few pages in a kind of frenzy, longing to be immediately lost in their fictional worlds, consumed by them. And yet they do not grip us, do not move us, and soon, we are easily distracted from their pages and are looking for something else to do, to occupy us.

Who’s at fault here? The bookseller, the publisher, the agent, the writer or the reader. Well, all of them, to the extent that they are all slaves to the market. Yes, the relentless commodification of modern fiction is a ghastly thing! Why, because it encourages mediocrity, books becoming as bland as DIY furniture – made to measure, functional, conceived to do a particular job. Make you laugh, make you cry, bish bash bosh, job done. Now, books sit beside rows of tinned tuna in supermarkets, nothing more than commercial goods to be consumed, easily digestible and not too taxing. Idiotic sales statements adorn their covers, publishers reassuring would be readers that, yes, don’t worry, it’s more of the fucking same! And so, “Jo Nesbo is the new Stieg Larsson!” and “If you loved the Twilight series, then you’ll love The Immortals even more.”

A new book today, if it has a chance of being published, must not possess a whiff of the alternative, the innovative, the cult. A few possessing these awkward, unwanted traits do, however, slip through the moronic, money-grabbing filters of agents, publishers and booksellers, thank God, such as Michel Houellebecq’s Les Particules Elementaires or Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but they are rare indeed. Hell, these two were published over a decade ago! Perhaps the logic of agents and publishers is the very same as tabloid editors and media moguls. The public want the lowest common denominator, therefore give them this and they will not ask for more.

The majority of writers comply, because they have to: they have children to feed, mortgages to pay. And so they write safe, producing work that imitates others, written within a clear genre, which their agent can flog easily to the publisher, and which the bookseller can then peddle to the lazy reader, who’ll consume it like a bag of popcorn, mindlessly and effortlessly. Others, however, think fuck ’em and self-publish. The agent or publisher might be too damn lazy and disaffected to do the work, but they are not. They believe in what they’ve written, however challenging or idiosyncratic it is, and they’re sure that even if the mainstream will not appreciate their work a small niche will, and greatly. Notable self-published authors include James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf. These three, James, Marcel and Virginia, cared little for the majority, the consensus. They wrote not for the market, but for the love of writing, the beauty and truth it contained not the moolah it made. The same can hardly be said for James Patterson and Tom Clancy!

Society Today – Britain’s Foreign Bosses

Society Today, Vol. 1, No.3, Summer 2006

With a new world order where money is placed above all else, British corporations are increasingly looking beyond the Great Isle – to the international market of talented executives – in order to recruit the best person to drive up share prices and maximise profits: the candidate’s professional competence and business acumen is judged to be far more important than whether or not he or she is native-born, a British citizen. A quarter of the FTSE 100 companies have foreigners at the helm, from an Indian American at Vodafone, to an Italian at Cable & Wireless, to a Canadian at Barclays.

And yet such companies would argue, perhaps quite justifiably, that they have little choice but to follow such a recruitment strategy if they are to survive and compete in the global economy. If they cannot find a Brit who is up to the task, then they must look for a foreigner who is. And should they not be commended for judging potential executives not according to their nationality but rather their track record? Patricia Peter, corporate governance executive at the Institute of Directors, certainly thinks so. According to her this ‘reflects an openness in the UK that isn’t there in other parts of the world. We are not hidebound. There are things we can learn from other people.’ This would certainly explain the appointment of Arun Sarin, who succeeded the very British, cricket-loving Sir Christopher Gent as chief executive of Vodafone. Born in Madhya Pradesh in Central India, Sarin graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur with a BS in Engineering in 1975, then emigrated to the US where he obtained a MS in Engineering, then MBA from the University of California. He rose rapidly up the corporate ladder and by 1997 was president and chief operating officer of US telecom company AirTouch, before heading up Vodafone’s US and Asia Pacific region.

It would also be fair to say that this growing preference for the gifted outsider is not simply about money and competition but about bringing a different cultural perspective and understanding to the board table, a fresh insight and wisdom. Gone are the days where the British corporation did not even attempt to consider and to respect the ideas and values of other cultures and merely imposed its colonial, authoritarian will on all and sundry: let us not forget that the East India Company ruled almost an entire country – it even had its own army – from the late 1700s to the mid 1800s. With the spread of modern democracy throughout much of the world, the rules of the game have changed. It is all about cross cultural cooperation and understanding now, not imperial dominance and ignorance.

And yet it is not only in the business world that foreigners are in demand. Their skills are now also required in the public sector. In September 2003 the Boston supercop Paul Evans was brought in to run the Home Office’s police standards unit. Why on earth import an American to police British streets? Well, because the government was hoping to call on his ‘experience and knowledge of global improvements in policing methods’. And then there is the endorsement of Reba Danastorg, executive director of the Ten Point Coalition (the collaboration between the police and an alliance of churches conceived by Evans to tackle Boston’s epidemic of youth gun crime), who described him as the architect of a law and order miracle, who had ‘the ability and the vision not just to keep policing within a department but to bring it to the people. He believes in shared glory, and you don’t find too many people who want to do that. I don’t want to keep saying it, but y’all got a great guy going over there.’ Based on this assessment of the man, we would have been foolish not to want him to help us with our own policing.

The other notable import into British public life who we cannot fail to mention is of course the national football manager Sven Goran Eriksson. Australian-born media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper might be determined to get rid of him on the grounds that he is a ‘foreigner’– underneath all the politically correct Modern Britain rhetoric Rebekah Wade and her right-wing cabal will never be able to shake off their inherent xenophobia – and yet the cool, indefatigable Swede has done a better job than his British predecessor Kevin Keegan, winning 58% of games compared with Keegan’s 39%.

And so it would seem that we Brits just can’t hack it anymore. A recent survey by the Economist magazine found that eight of Britain’s top 20 companies were run by non-nationals, compared with four in France and just two in Germany and the United States. We cannot simply explain away this abundance of foreigners as an inevitable consequence of Thatcher’s free market meritocracy – May the best man win! – not least because such meritocracy more often celebrates an individual’s ruthlessness rather than moral worth. Perhaps we must concede that we no longer have the energy, the drive, the vision, the focus to run our own companies and institutions? We would rather leave this to others now.

Thus, maybe we are suffering from post-colonial fatigue? Raping and pillaging other countries has finally taken its toll on us. We just can’t be bothered anymore. Better that someone else do the work. We’re still one of the world’s richest countries, well … just about, with a national GDP of $1.782 trillion, the sixth largest behind the US, China, Japan, India and Germany. Not bad considering we are nothing more a tiny blip on the world’s surface area, though we continue to coerce cartographers into making our island look significantly bigger than it actually is. Or perhaps this is less fatigue than surrender, the uncomfortable admission that we must play second fiddle now?

The comments of Roger Parry, CEO of Clear Channel in the UK, the country’s leading outdoor advertising company, would seem to confirm this assessment. In a recent interview with The Guardian newspaper, he said, ‘As a generalisation, Americans are more energetic. They take business more seriously. They regard it as a contact sport, whereas some Brits regard business as an interesting amateur athletic event.’ And yet perhaps this simply points to a difference in style and belief rather than ability and determination. Philip Augar, author of The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism, would certainly argue this. According to him, British companies are increasingly adopting the American belief that ‘business should [primarily] be run for shareholders and on the basis of shareholder value.’ And it is perhaps this aspect of the modern economy – now defined by the will of international corporations – more than any other that explains the growing apathy and complacency of the British in their own land.

And yet not all foreign chief executives have done a great job. We need only look at Ernest Mario of Glaxo whose culture of excess alarmed the board and shareholders so much that he was gone within three years. The company subsequently turned to Richard Sykes, the cerebral Yorkshire scientist, who pushed through the merger with SmithKline to create the world’s second largest drug company. Lord Hanson, who built up a huge industrial empire mainly via large-scale predatory takeovers, was also not wholly convinced by the merits of foreign recruitment and the need for broader vision and reach in the globalized world. In an interview with The Guardian before his death, he said, ‘For the most part, you are better off with Americans for American companies and Brits for British companies.’

However, despite this, it still seems that the people that lead the way in the formation of a modern industrialized economy would now rather be elsewhere: the British are governed more by corporate interest than national interest. And it certainly helps that English, for the time being at least, is the international language of choice. And though The Daily Mail, this bastion of old Britain – I stress the world ‘old’ – might bemoan this exodus, it was inevitable once Britain ceased to colonize and began to respect more the individual destinies of other nations and peoples. Nationalism is no doubt being eroded by globalization, and yet surely this is a good thing if it results in fewer wars and greater peace.

The face and character of Britain is changing rapidly as different people, many of whom were subject to British rule, now fill its streets and participate in its companies and institutions. And yet this influx of people from the former Empire regions of the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, Africa and the Far East should be embraced rather than rejected: it has brought the country such richness, diversity and success. We need only look at the achievements of the Indian Gulam Noon, who arriving in London in 1978 went on to build a £100m business, Noon Products, which currently produces around 200,000 ready-made meals every day. And yet it is not only Noon who has contributed so much to British society. There is also the Kenyan hotelier Jasminder Singh, the Taiwanese property developer Victor Hwang, the Hong Kong Chinese entrepreneur Sammy Lee, and of course the Asian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, now the richest man in Britain, to name just a few. Let us forget about preserving the old culture – subjecting immigrants to Norman Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’ – and focus on developing the new.

Society Today – Why Are They Begging?

Society Today, Vol. 1, No. 2, November/December 2005

This is the question on our lips when we walk past a man or woman huddled in the doorway of a shop front like some desperate animal, wrapped in a dirty blanket clinging to it for warmth, hiding a face smeared with grime and shame, and clutching a polystyrene cup with a few coppers in it.

In one sense we are bloody foolish to even ask the question. Shelter is like food and sex – we need it – and if we don’t have it, then we’ll look for ways to get it. Let us be frank but the vast majority of us, if we had to endure a seemingly endless run of cold and hungry nights on the street, would do almost anything to relieve our pain and destitution: we would become this desperate person, we would beg.

The question we should ask ourselves is not why but rather how, how this person came to this, to a life on the street. And as soon as we ask this question, we realise that the answers are multifarious and complex. ‘Is it not just about drink and drugs?!’ I hear some of you say. ‘The destitute person begs in order to feed his or her habit.’ No, the addiction, if he or she has one, is normally the symptom of a far greater cause, be this domestic violence, the loss of a loved one, or a specific psychiatric disorder, to name but a few. It is vital to consider the human story behind each person huddled in the doorway of some shop front.

I have met and come to know two homeless people. Both of them were forced onto the street, but once there, responded in contrasting ways: one aspired to get off, the other to stay on.

First, there was Lydia in Kensington, a petite woman in her early thirties with brown hair and kind eyes. She had been in a violent relationship. One day after a beating she left her flat with just her purse, which held nothing more than small change, and once outside, away from her boyfriend, decided not to go back. She immediately took herself to a hostel, but they would not admit her because she had no proof of who she was. She then considered asking the police to escort her back to her flat where she could at least retrieve some of her possessions including her identification, but no, she didn’t want to do this because she was scared that he, her partner, might find her afterwards when she was on her own and punish her. And so she was forced to spend her first night on the street. The next day she applied for social security, but again her efforts were in vain because she now had no permanent residence. Only after a full week did she manage to get herself on an emergency housing waiting list, and even then she would have to wait until her new paperwork came through, until she could prove who she was once more, and this could take up to two months. I met Lydia after she had spent almost seven weeks living rough, and though she might have been clutching a polystyrene cup with a few coppers in it she had immense courage and dignity: she did not openly beg but rather just sat quietly, head bowed. ‘I find it so difficult having to rely on the generosity of others,’ she said to me, ‘but I realise that if I’m to survive I must accept whatever I’m given, and that once I get housing I might then find work, and soon be back on my feet.’

Second, there was Brian in Victoria, a man in his late fifties with a mass of wild grey hair. An academic, he had taught and lectured in English literature at a high profile university. He had married in his early forties to a woman he loved deeply, she was pregnant, and they were due to have a child. But she died during childbirth, and the baby was stillborn. Torn apart by grief, Brian found it increasingly difficult to cope, and the bereavement counseling he received did not help. He developed depression, struggled to go to work, started drinking heavily, and was eventually made redundant. Unable to meet his mortgage repayments, he soon found himself homeless. I met Brian after he had spent some twelve years on the street. ‘I’m okay now, though,’ he said, after concluding his life story. ‘In fact, I’ve no desire to go back to the way things were. That was then, this is now. People think I must be mad, deluded or institutionalized when I say this, but I’m not.’ I got the sense of a man who was a little eccentric maybe, but was certainly none of the above. Rather, he had accepted his fate, what life had dealt him, and had found some peace. Now he spent his days in public parks and libraries, and his nights sleeping under a church alcove. And why disrupt this life and force him into public housing? I thought. He is content, and the least we can do for him is respect his decision, the way he has chosen to lead his life.

Lydia is in hostel accommodation now and looking for work. And Brian, well I imagine he is still pottering around Victoria. And so to the question one last time, Why are they begging?, well … we respond to what life throws at us in different ways, and get by as best we can.

Roof – Child Soldier

Roof, Shelter’s Magazine, October 2008

Imagine this. You are forced from your bed at gunpoint in the middle of the night, tied up and dragged off, half-naked and barefoot, into the wilderness. You are made to walk for twelve hours, then permitted to rest, but for no more than two hours, on hard ground, on a bed of leaves, in the dirt, damp and rain. You are not fed, just given water. And then you are ordered to walk again, for another twelve hours.

This goes on for three days, and by the end of it you are starving and exhausted, and your feet, swollen and blistered. Then you are stripped naked and paraded in front of a number of men in uniform. You are told that from hereon you must obey these men at all times, and that if you don’t you will be killed. And then finally, you are fed.

You spend your first week of captivity as a porter, carrying munitions for the men in uniform. Next, you are trained to fight: to use a machete in hand-to-hand combat, to load and shoot a machine gun, to fire a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and to lay landmines. Your training lasts for just one week, after which you are ordered to loot and fight.

‘Now we have given you the power to kill someone, you must do it,’ the men in uniform insist, ‘and if you do not, then we will kill you.’

Kill or be killed.

Hours later you are with the men in uniform as they raid a small village in search of food and other supplies. It is full of women and children, and your orders are to kill them, kill all of them.

I wish this were fiction, but it is not. This is what happened to Ojok Charles. He was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Kitgum, Northern Uganda, in 2002. He was just ten years old.

They took him precisely because he was so young: they could break him down quickly and have him killing in no time, without compunction.

He slept on the forest floor, living and fighting rough, and soon the only thing which distinguished him from the other animals he shared the forest with – the gorilla, the bushbuck, the golden cat, the duiker, the giant hog – was that he was crueller than them. Homo sapiens, as a species, has an extraordinary propensity for cruelty, which far exceeds that of other animals.

Ojok fought for three years, and during this time killing became routine. After the first year he was orphaned, his mother and father murdered by fellow rebels. And in his second year, he was seriously wounded, shot in the head and lower leg. Though his head healed his leg did not, and not given adequate medical attention he risked losing it. His escape came just in time. He and a few others were returning to camp having looted a nearby village. Ugandan government forces lay in ambush. They attacked the parade and, in the resulting chase, Ojok managed to escape. On his own, he lived off the land for a number of days before finally being captured.

He was taken, first, to government barracks, where he was questioned about his time in the bush and who his leaders were; then, to a rehabilitation centre in Lira which cared for child returnees – those recently escaped or freed. His leg was, at long last, treated, and he was fed well and encouraged to rest.

At first Ojok ate more food than he could eat, and slept day and night. It was wonderful to sleep in shelter, on a bed and mattress, with clean sheets. After three years sleeping curled up on the forest floor he had imagined that he would never sleep in a bed again with a roof over his head.

For the first few weeks he barely spoke, other than to utter his name, and he never smiled. He was numb inside, and had been for a long time. However, as the weeks became months he started to feel more, receiving counselling and emotional support from those who worked at the centre, and it was not long before his smile finally returned and he was able to talk about, and come to terms with, what had happened to him and what he had done.

While at the centre he met someone from Outside the Dream, a foundation which brings education and hope to those whose lives have been shattered by war and poverty. Ojok was determined to return to school despite his years of absence. He would have to sit in a class with children four years his junior. He would have to re-sit one academic year. He would have to forego the life typical of a teenager his age. But he would do all these things as he now had a dream in mind – to finish school and attend university.

He is now back at school and doing very well. In fact, he is very near the top of his class.

My first novel, Love and Mayhem, had been a study of homelessness and destitution resulting from personal tragedy, and I quickly realised while researching my third novel, Gorilla Guerrilla, based on the experiences of Ojok Charles, that this would also be a study of homelessness and destitution, though born of political, not personal, tragedy. Just as Leonard Gold, the protagonist of Love and Mayhem, overcome with grief after the death of his wife, is forced to live on the streets, so Kibwe, the child protagonist of Gorilla Guerrilla, is forced to live rough in the bush after he has been abducted. Both characters are stripped of their humanity and forced to live as animals. However, whereas the cause of Leonard’s tragedy was unavoidable, the cause of Kibwe’s was not. His was driven by the pursuit of power, political power.

Millions in Uganda have been affected by this pursuit. Now twenty-two years long, the conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government is Africa’s longest-running civil war. More than twenty-five thousand children have been abducted and forced to fight as child soldiers, and over two million people have been driven from their homes and forced to live in temporary shelter in internal displacement camps. Uganda has been described as ‘a nation of orphans’. Currently 2.2 of its 27 million population are orphans, but by 2010 the UN predicts that this number will have risen to 3.5 million. When will it end?!

Roof – The Broken-Hearted

Roof, Shelter’s magazine, September/October 2006

The plight of the homeless first really dawned on me when I was twenty-one and living in America. My friend, Justin, and I were fast running out of money and needed work: we’d prepaid the rent on a short-term let – a poky studio flat just big enough to swing a cat in – and had just a few weeks remaining before we were out in the cold. Well, at least we were in Los Angeles, we told ourselves, the sun nearly always out in southern California. But, thankfully, work came in the nick of time.

We were hired by a pushy, blonde and busty LA girl – yes, the bosoms had, of course, been surgically enhanced – who was willing to take a chance on two young Brits (I doubt she would have hired us were we Mexicans), with no work permits, who needed money. However, it must be made clear that her motives were not entirely philanthropic: she knew she could pay us bugger all because we were working illegally, and it wasn’t as if we could throw the worker’s rights book at her. We had no rights … we were ‘aliens’ (according to the US Immigration and Nationality Act)! She also happened to have a bit of a soft spot for Justin: she couldn’t resist the English accent.

And so it was that we came to work for Balloon Celebrations, a business that made its money from selling latex, albeit latex balloons rather than condoms. The company was housed in a small retail complex that consisted of several shop units, and there was a common area at the rear which provided access to a large parking lot. It was there that I first met Lennie.

He was the very antithesis of the person I was working for. Not only was he not busty and blonde but also was someone who would have refused point-blank to cater for the excessive and ostentatious whims of the wealthy, and this was not just on account of his socialist principles. We had customers who spent tens of thousands of dollars on their own birthday party, and this was just the cost of the damn balloons! Lennie, rather, was someone of modest and humble disposition who lived a life on the streets, and had done for many years.

I heard him before I saw him, a man with a gravelly voice reciting John Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. His recital immediately piqued my interest, not least because it was strange to hear the words of a nineteenth century English poet being spoken by a tough-sounding American guy in an ugly car park – though I’m not sure there is such a thing as a beautiful one – against a noisy backdrop of slamming doors, honking cars and moaning dump trucks.

Immediately I went looking for the source of this recitation, and with the closing words, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ I finally came upon a man in his mid-fifties with a mass of wild grey hair and a thick beard with streaks of grey in it, slender, and of average height it appeared, though I could not be sure as he was sitting down, leaning against the side of a dumpster. He wore a threadbare jacket, check shirt and a grubby pair of trousers. By his bare feet there was a plastic bag full of old books and magazines.

The first thing I did was to offer him money, a dollar bill, which he refused with a gentle shake of his head. Had he not been homeless then I surely would have done something else first, perhaps said hello, introduced myself, asked his name. But no, on account of his appearance I assumed he wanted money and nothing more. He smiled, his eyes a radiant blue, then said, ‘I don’t want your money, but if you’ve finished with that sandwich in your hand then I’ll have the rest of it.’

I promptly gave it to him, and so it was that I came to know a little of the life of Lennie.

In many respects he was a man of great dignity, and such a quality does not come easy when you’re sleeping rough, when your clothes are ragged and filthy, your body foul-smelling and dirty.

Lennie had taught English literature at Penn State University. He had married late, to a woman he loved very much, and expected to spend the rest of his life with her. However, she had died suddenly, in the blink of an eye, in a car accident: the driver who hit her had been drunk.

During the months following her death, torn apart by grief, Lennie found it increasingly difficult to cope: he struggled to hold down his job, struggled to find a reason to get up in the morning. In the end his mental collapse was swift. One day he was simply unable to get out of bed, and just lay there in a fetal position. He spent three days like that until he finally summoned the will to call for an ambulance: he was immediately hospitalized.

His story was familiar to me – I had also suffered a mental collapse, though not on account of grief – but I had been fortunate enough to have someone there to pick up the pieces. And once I had got through the initial period of crisis, where the symptoms of anxiety and depression were most acute, I had the benefit of continued support: a roof over my head, free health care, someone to talk to. But Lennie, after he was discharged from hospital, had none of these things: he was simply bundled out of the door with a few pills in his pocket, some Prozac (an antidepressant) and Xanax (an anxiolytic).

It was a broken-heart that had rendered him homeless, that had changed the course of his life irrevocably, and I only discovered for myself what a broken-heart could do a few years later when a relationship I was in with a woman I loved very much fell apart.

It was with this experience and with Lennie in mind that I began work on my first novel, Love and Mayhem, a book about love and what can happen when it is lost.

Lennie’s story is sadly typical of many who live on the street. He wasn’t a drunk, he wasn’t a junkie, and he wasn’t just plain lazy – far from it in fact, he walked miles every day and was an avid reader (an activity which often requires significant thought, concentration and diligence, that is unless you’re reading The Sun newspaper) – but he had suffered a mental collapse, had then not been given the necessary care to help him back to work, back to mainstream society, and so had been left to muddle along on its fringes, in the shadows, behind dumpsters or in shop doorways.

Marginalized, life on the street had slowly become a way of life for him, and by the time I met Lennie he was almost committed to this renegade existence. And why not, part of me thought. If this life he now led gave him some measure of peace and happiness after years of pain and heartache, then why not just let him be.

Writing about Lennie makes me think of the plight of someone closer to home, Anne Naysmith, who lived for three decades, until 2002, in an old beat-up Ford Consul parked on a wealthy residential street in Chiswick, west London. A former concert pianist, she had suffered a nervous breakdown after a failed love affair. She subsequently took to living in her car, and had become quite content there. However, an argument slowly began to rage between the street’s residents until those who were most concerned simply about how her presence might affect the value of their homes finally won the day: they promptly had the council remove the car, and she was forced into public housing.

It does seem, when it comes to people like Lennie and Anne, that we are often too quick to force others to live as we do, and struggle when they cannot or will not conform. Perhaps we would sometimes do better to merely listen, to remind ourselves of what a broken-heart feels like. Or maybe it is just that our heart is yet to be truly broken?