This is Tom and Francis with their dog, Milo.
I met them and stopped for nice chat recently on Denman Street; a location just off of Shaftesbury Avenue, behind the flashing altar to advertising that is Piccadilly Circus.
Tom and Francis are both Scottish, but have been in London for over twenty years. They’re both ‘Big Issue’ vendors, and have formed a solid friendship with each other on the streets of the capital.
When I met them, they were waiting outside a noodle bar, the owner being kind enough to give the pair a piping-hot noodle-fix every day for a knock-down price. If you look carefully, Tom (on the left) has his own chopsticks, which he produced from his jacket. Francis on the other hand hasn’t mastered the art of Far-Eastern cutlery (I know how he feels), and prefers to dig out his snack with a fork. As he said, in his broad Glaswegian accent;
“Och! It all goes in and doon’ the same way!”
Tom and Francis were exceptionally friendly, and I wish some of the stressed passengers I have in my taxi every now and then were able to adopt the same, laid-back attitude!
Cabbing around London, one of the saddest things I see on a daily basis are the large numbers of homeless people.
London is a city of immense wealth. Even in these thrifty times, it is possible to see people out enjoying themselves. West-End restaurants and bars are often heaving, large crowds pour out of glittering theatres every night, and towering office blocks continue to sprout up in the financial districts.
Amongst this however, there are still people sleeping rough.
Walk through any major area in London, and you’ll see examples of destitution; homeless people either begging or sleeping; huddled up in filthy, foul-smelling doorways with nothing more than a grubby sleeping bag or a few sheets of flimsy cardboard to keep themselves warm.
Sadly, the psychology of the human mind tends to make homeless individuals invisible.
Embarrassment, awkwardness, shame and, unfortunately with some people, disgust, leads passers-by to avert their gaze and walk on as quickly as possible. This is something I’ve been guilty of myself on many occasions.
Sometime ago, I remember seeing a beggar walk past a pub on Villiers Street; a crowded thoroughfare tucked alongside Charing Cross Station.
Being summertime, most of the drinking was being conducted outside, the boozers taking advantage of the warm evening air.
The beggar approached the crowd asking for change and, to a small degree, was successful in procuring a few coins.
However, one of the pub’s patrons decided a violent lecture was in order.
“You make me f***ing SICK. Why don’t you get a f***ing job, you low-life piece of ****.”
The mouthpiece who barked out this tirade was a huge bloke; over six foot tall with a massive gut and powerful arms. A typical bully, with an attitude so stereotypical, it was almost laughable.
As demonstrated above, when not being ignored, the homeless can be subjected to great hostility. Over the years, it has not been unbeknown for rough sleepers to be physically attacked and, in some cases, even murdered.
In 1999, the pop-group ‘Madness’ released a single entitled ‘Johnny the Horse.’ The song told the life-story of a tramp (known by his friends as Johnny the Horse) who was beaten and killed. As the lyric goes;
“Johnny the horse was kicked to death,
He died for entertainment.”
On a happier note, a few years ago, whilst learning ‘The Knowledge’ and studying the streets of London, I saw an extremely heart-warming sight.
It was a cold evening, a few days before Christmas, and I’d stopped at red lights on Oxford Street, just before Marble Arch. Being the festive season, Oxford Street was buzzing, packed with late-night shoppers. Shop displays glowed invitingly and, overhead, the traditional Christmas lights sparkled away their electric magic.
My attention was soon drawn though to a taxi, which had pulled up on the opposite side of the road (on double red-lines no less- an action which would lead to the driver being fined if he lurked there for too long).
Out of this cab climbed a short, stout cabbie who looked to be in his mid-late 60s. In his hand, he clutched a supermarket carrier bag.
Halfway between a walk and a run, he dodged across Oxford Street towards a souvenir shop. There, in the doorway, sat a West-Indian man; a down-and-out, with long, natty dreads. He was wrapped in a well-worn, grey coat, the window behind displaying cheap trinkets; plastic flags, tacky ashtrays and little Big Ben statues.
The cabbie approached the homeless fellow and knelt down beside him. The two appeared to be about the same age and were clearly familiar with each other. As he crouched on the tiled floor, the cabbie quickly took items out of the bag, showing them to his transient friend. The goods were all food-stuffs; packets of biscuits, crisps, tins of soft drink and so on.
The traffic light then turned green, and I had to drive off. I’ve never forgotten that scene though, and I often find myself wondering what story and history lay behind that bond.
One down and out I do know a bit more about is Clefrin Frederick, also known as ‘Mad Fred’ or ‘Fred the Tramp.’
I grew up in South Harrow in the 1980s and, at that time, Fred the Tramp was a well-known, local figure.
Originally from the island of Grenada, Fred had swapped the Caribbean’s lush beauty for the grey suburbs of North-West London.
To a child, Fred the Tramp could be a terrifying figure. His sported a huge, bristling beard (which would have given any cut-throat pirate a run for their money), and always wore rustling supermarket bags on his feet, often in varying states of decay.
Opposite the tube station, there was a small communal area, constructed from worn stones and containing wooden benches and a collection of bushes. Fred had commandeered this as his pitch, and he would hold court there, hoarding rubbish, knocking back Special Brew (he was a chronic alcoholic), talking to himself and shouting every now and then at passers-by.
His makeshift home was also opposite the area’s toughest pub; ‘The Constellation’ (aka ‘The Con’), where Fred no doubt managed to scrounge the odd pint.
Although we lived in a flat and had no garden, the Council provided my parents with a pitch on the nearby allotments. Fred could often be seen here too, loitering amongst the long, muddy strips. He even introduced a dartboard to the allotments; attaching it to the Council’s fading blue rules and notices sign.
At other times, I’d peer through the living-room’s net curtains, and see Fred tramping across the estate’s car-park in his improvised footwear, muttering away to himself.
Although ‘Mad Fred’ initially appeared an intimidating character, he was in fact rather popular amongst those adults who took the time to chat and get to know him.
He was also something of a philosopher, and would leave shabby, improvised signs lying around for all to see- rather like an early prelude to Banksy. Amongst his written wisdom was this gem, which I assume was a reference to the then current Cold War.
“All good things must come to an end, but there’s no use pushing the wrong button in this computer.”
My father often spoke to Mad Fred. He first came to know him when his van once broke down. Fred approached my Dad and, after a look under the vehicle’s bonnet, he located the problem and soon had the van running again.
It turned out that Fred was a gifted mechanic.
Before turning to the streets, he’d been employed by the London Fire Brigade, working as a mechanic on their fire engines.
Fred also had a wife and children, but sadly this relationship was destroyed. Laden with heart-ache, he’d turned to the streets and alcohol, gradually morphing into the shambling, bearded figure whom the public came to regard as the crazed tramp of Northolt Road.
Luckily, Frederick’s story has a happy ending; one which is quite unbelievable, and a classic example of ‘you couldn’t script it.’
In the mid-1970s, Fred had owned a house, which was repossessed by the building society. They sold the house ten years later, for a tidy profit. However, they refused to hand over Fred’s share, claiming that he was “incapable of handling his own affairs.”
Whilst he was living rough, Fred was in fact owed some £50,000.
He would often approach the building society but, with bags on his feet and an alcoholic haze surrounding him, he would be sent right out.
Fred finally managed to secure his cash in the early 1990s, with the help of a kindly local shop keeper, who contacted his solicitors and spent seven months fighting his corner. The building society finally handed over £50,000 plus £6,000 in interest.
But the story does not end there.
Suited and cleaned up, Mad Fred was now able to afford a trip back to his native Grenada.
It was there that he discovered his father, who had passed away whilst Fred was living rough 1,000s of miles away, had left his son a home and a large plot of land.
After years of heartache, alcoholism and hard-living, Fred had gained his very own slice of paradise.
I don’t know what the solution is for London’s homeless population. Nor am I naïve enough to believe that many vagrants do not carry extremely complex issues with them
However, as Mad Fred’s story demonstrates; never be judgemental.
The people we see huddled in London’s doorways, subways and stairwells are all individuals.
Alcohol and drug abuse, depression, leaving the army and being unable to cope with civilian life, financial problems, loosing loved ones, escaping violence; these are all possible causes of homelessness, and each and every down-and-out sleeping rough in London tonight will have their own separate tale to tell.