The beautiful Royal Exchange Theatre Building
After the meeting at the Royal Exchange we were due to meet my old friends Kim, Kelly, Karl and Wendy for drinks on Salford Quays. As I left the building and its wonderful salubriousness (it’s one of my favourite theatre buildings) I was approached by a Big Issue seller. I confess that in days gone by these were a bit of a pain in the arse – it seemed you couldn’t walk 100 yards without being accosted – but given my current plight, my views have radically changed. So much so, that I really wanted to reach into my pocket but knew I couldn’t, so made my apology.
Neither surprisingly perhaps nor rudely, the seller glanced at my attire (I’d shaved and smartened for our meeting) and said it was fine, if I hadn’t got a few coppers I hadn’t got a few coppers. But it broke my heart to know that what he was really thinking was “you lying bastard, that’s what they all say.” So I felt bound to explain that I’d just been to an ‘interview’.
“I might not look it,” I said, “but I’m homeless too.”
“Right,” he said.
“No really,” I insisted, “I live in a van.”
“I live in a tent,” he said.
In lieu of money I rolled him a cigarette and asked for his story. He was Paul, 45, born, bred and educated in Salford. He left school with decent qualifications and decided to get a trade in the construction industry. He was earning good money as a roofer when he met his future wife, so settled down, had three kids, a budgie, a labrador and was very happy.
He’d always played guitar and performed with a good few pub bands down the years, doing classic rock covers. Being in bands always attracted the girls and perhaps inevitably he had an affair. His wife found out and chucked him onto the street. He had no family (his parents both died during the above story) so he dossed on various friends’ settees, yet still ticked along because he always had his work…
Until the day he lost his job. He managed to get a few temporary contracts in the industry, but then they dried up during the period of austerity. Feeling depressed, he became “a pain to live with” and increasingly found his friends were making excuses as to why he could no longer stay with them. And so with little money, no home, fewer friends, his guitar sold and an alcohol dependency, he took to the streets.
As I listened to his tale and his means to exist (he buys the Big Issue for £1.25 a copy, sells for £2.50 and needed another eight quid to break even that day) I reflected on what a decent bloke he was, and recalled others I’ve met on my travels who were in the same place, and all bewildered at how quick and seemingly irreversible the downward spiral goes.
And I looked at my own plight, at my nice clothes bought in wealthier times, and realised how close I could be to being Paul. And I thought about the riches of Manchester (a place that makes you want to feel successful) and its well-heeled buzz of office folk and business owners. How ironic that the homeless should be here, unable to afford to drink in the posh bars yet hanging around them because there’s a slim chance of alms.
Then as I met with my friends I considered how lucky I am; I have a safety net in the kindness of people who love me, people who care, people who are friends. Yes we too went to swanky bars in Media City, places where I’ve put hundreds of pounds over the bar in former times and hopefully will again. But looking around at the rich clientele, I couldn’t help but think that if I scratched beneath the surface I could find something altogether different. It’s quite possible that any of them could find themselves like me, relying on the State and on friends and loved-ones. Or ultimately they could find themselves like Paul, who’s gone beyond relying on the State – he now relies on the kindness of strangers. And in future when I walk the streets of Manchester or anywhere, I’ll be far more mindful not to be so judgemental.