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At the meeting point between literature and life

posted on 14 Feb 2017

At the meeting point between literature and life

Sometimes a fictional book comes to life before my eyes - and it isn't necessarily a good experience. For instance, I very much enjoyed reading Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman where the misery of homeless people living on the margins is completely ignored by more the fortunate who are going about their daily business. As happens in the real world, if they are noticed by anyone it is usually with a mix of fear, disdain, guilt and pity. All these feelings can be temporarily assuaged by tossing someone a few coins or perhaps buying a copy of The Big Issue. We would rather not see these people because they are getting in the way of our happier lives. “Surely,” the hard of heart would say, “they could make a bit more of an effort to think about the feelings of decent people”?

What Neverwhere showed was that in fiction at least their invisibility and associated worthlessness can be turned completely upside down once they enter an underground version of the world above. There they can hold their heads up because it is they who have the necessary knowledge, skills and power to save the world above from ultimate destruction.

After reading this wonderfully written action packed story, which by the way is not at all didactic, I must admit that I started noticing the swathes of homeless people in various cities even more than I had done before. That was a few months ago when more and more people started to appear actually living on the streets, presumably as a result of ordinary lives that had fallen apart for all kinds of reasons including family breakdown, long term illness, addiction, eviction, debt, unemployment and general bad luck which in the current punishing policy climate is always going to end badly. This is not a new phenomenon as those reasons have always been a factor in triggering homeless and destitution. I also know that Individuals from some groups in society are much more vulnerable and these include many leaving care, ex prisoners and ex forces. But this felt different. So what has changed?

I regularly walk through Birmingham city centre in the evening on my return from visiting my family who live in the suburbs. Like many urban centres, once the shops have shut and office workers have gone home at the end of the day and before restaurants and bars get busy , it has always felt rather desolate. But this bleakness has become even more pronounced and over the past few weeks I have been really shocked at what I see before my eyes as I walk past, trying hard not to stare. 

Right in the centre of ‘town’, on the corner of New St and Corporation St, just before reaching the razzamatazz of the new Grand Central complex with its late night shopping and busy train station, I see more and more people of all shapes, ages and ethnic backgrounds  queuing for soup and food parcels. These are presumably provided by a charity, although this is not advertised and the people doing the handing out are always cheerful and friendly. In  the last two weeks I have seen a man with a walking frame and two wheelchair users in the waiting crowd. There are many gaunt young people huddling together and others standing alone at the edges of the crowd. There are also piles of used clothes by a transit van with people scrabbling to find something warm to wear as the weather gets colder. I know all about the increasing number of food banks everywhere that have sprung up to help people in desperate need, but they are not in plain sight like this. I guess that this kind of emergency relief is now quietly happening all over the city because this week, as I looked out of the window of the bus I noticed a similarly large crowd in the closed market area all waiting patiently in line for charity. 

This is not  fiction and there are no secret portals to a world where these cold and hungry people can escape and find more status and meaning. This is 2017 in the second biggest city in England in the fifth most affluent country in the world. And the queues are growing.

Karen Argent

February 2017