Heathcote Ruthven & Miranda Gold
There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.
– Arundhati Roy
A festival of care in aid of the homeless has taken place in Britain each winter since the Seventies. Crisis at Christmas offers seven nights of accommodation, three cooked meals a day, medical care, dentistry, eye tests. Guests have access to showers, a cloakroom, computers, film screenings. Tailors are on hand for clothing repairs, natural therapists for massages, recovering addicts chair twelve-step meetings. Services give advice on housing, immigration, and employment. At heart it is a social occasion. For a brief time the feelings of isolation that accompany homelessness are shaken off. A ceaseless rich soundscape of chatter unfolds over cups of tea, cigarettes, and karaoke.
Christmas is a difficult time for many. At its best Crisis At Christmas is an act of community building beyond charity. A sense of reciprocity and mutual support underpins the interactions between guests and volunteers. In winter 2018 there were over 12,000 volunteers – including novelist Miranda Gold. General ‘voles’ are there in part simply to talk with guests – to chat, distract, or listen. Guests share fragments: a regret, a hope, a glimpse of the life they want to build. They explore who they are beyond their circumstances. A few understand themselves as artists: songwriters, rappers, chroniclers of the city. Others are more tentative. They feel they have a story to tell – know they do – but don’t know how to begin. How can I create when I don’t where I’ll be tomorrow? they’d say. Got back to my spot and everything was nicked, or the squat’s been boarded up, my laptop with my novel on… irretrievable. There’s no quiet, some say, no quiet, no time, no point. Many feel obviated, shut up, kept out of sight. Just to speak and to be heard is settling. To let them remember who they are – and still could be – beyond the doorway, hostel or sofa they inhabit.
The stories Miranda heard moved her to act. She wrote ‘I Am Not Who You Think I Am’ – a literature course exploring character and identity – and pitched it to Elisabeth Seifert at East London’s Crisis Skylight centre. It was accepted. The classes were popular and fired up Crisis Members’ urge to write. More workshops were requested by members who wanted to take their writing further. So Miranda approached poetry publisher New River Press. An exciting new publishing project began: an anthology of poems by people who’ve been homeless.
Since June 2019 New River’s Heathcote Ruthven and Miranda facilitated weekly workshops and one-to-one poetry surgeries at Skylight. Established poets Hugo Williams, Lisa Kelly, Golnoosh Nour, Joe Dunthorne, and others gave creative guidance. Crisis members received feedback on theirwork. This new poetry community’s work flourished both on the page and in performance.
In winter 2019 Miranda returned to Crisis at Christmas. This time she and Heathcote offered five days of poetry surgeries from 10am to 7pm taking place in borrowed schools; one in North Kensington, another in Bermondsey. The flood of stories was overwhelming – by turns heartbreaking and admirable. These are the diaries of the first two days.
24th September 2019. Near Latimer Road.
A stack of spiral bound notebooks. A box of pens. A clutch of prompts. The tools required to facilitate a workshop are dauntingly minimal. Clutter the empty space and risk drowning out the voices trying to emerge. Our travelling poetry library is a last-minute thought. We clear a shelf’s worth into a rucksack – Gunn, Plath, Kaminsky, Olds – guides and anchors as much for us as the participants – and grab a pile of Tate postcards – Freud, Bacon, Rego. We raid Poundland for stationery. In a classroom at Aldrich Academy we pile these objects in the centre of four tables – our biblio-altar piece.
Miranda: I trawled through reams of notes from the Skylight course, mentally snipping ideas that might translate. We needed a structure that was elastic enough to welcome all: those with an established sense of themselves writers and those there simply to escape the karaoke. Worksheets and hand-outs may be alienating – tasks to complete rather than possibilities to play with. The word ‘poetry’ can provoke anxiety. Seamus Heaney said the idea of the poet still contains an archaic force – it hasn’t been secularised like the novelist or the playwright.
Heathcote: I keep recognising faces. Keep thinking ‘do I know them? Or is there a common experience that makes your face like that?’ The battering of sleeping rough, alcoholism’s ruddy cheeks, heroin’s winkles. It could all be in my head. Prejudice?
At 10am we are led to a room for ‘activity leaders’ and given a brief: ‘Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Don’t stand over people. The people who’ve stood over our guests – particularly the rough sleepers – are the police and those with malicious intent. So crouch or sit beside them.’
Miranda: ‘What me?’ A lady asks, bursting out laughing when I ask her if she wants to come along.
‘I’ve never written in my life – I don’t know if I can.’
‘Maybe come and find out?’
‘Yeah,’ she says with a shy smile, ‘maybe – yeah maybe I will.’
A few guests eagerly accept. Several politely decline. One gives me a snort – ‘fuckin artists’ (a response hard not to sympathise with). Another says he can’t risk having his ideas nicked. ‘Safer kept up here,’ he explained tapping his temple.
Heathcote: Guests trickle in to class. I try to drum up some enthusiasm – ramble about what poetry can be – but struggle to get anything going. I don’t feel comfortable in this teacher role yet. Caitlin – enthusiastic, blunt, volatile – declares she did ‘a very expensive creative writing course at the V&A’ where they told her to write ‘if I were a piece of furniture I would be…’ and ‘if I were a colour I would be…’ then ‘go on from there’. I attempt to get the room to try this. But Caitlin is pumped with too much energy and keeps talking. Nobody seems inspired by this confused task. Miranda arrives, takes over, and the workshop finally gets going.
‘What information are your senses gathering?’ Miranda asks. ‘Focus on the non-visual. No need to think in terms of a poem. Just observe. Piece together the world around you. What comes for free?’ Anything to get the pen moving. Exercises can untangle the fear of writing – a fear often strongest in those with the most urgent desire to write. An insoluble anxiety they’ll fail to match the words to the experience. Writing workshops are highly charged spaces. Classrooms and whiteboards can infantilise. Skins are thin. Insecurities surface. Confidence can surge or plummet in an instant.
‘Agnes gave me this,’ said Caitlin lifting up a bowl of bread and butter pudding. ‘She’s named after that Keats poem – do you know it?’ In our first exercise Caitlin transformed the pudding she was snacking on into an Ode to the volunteer Agnes – to the tenderness with which Agnes gave her this sweet mush. The poem explores how the simplest of gestures might reveal what a person is at their core. Caitlin is moved by what she’d written. Her own words surprised her, as did the group’s response to them. Her excitability morphs into a quiet pride.
We present our art postcards. ‘Imagine – look through this person’s eyes. What are they thinking? Where did they sleep last night? Put yourself in the picture – what lies beyond the edges of the frame? Write whatever comes into your head. Ten minutes.’ Visual prompts give the writers freedom to respond with instinct. Guests set the parameters and explore.
Sofia is reticent. Her eyes under long black curly hair are serious and concerned. ‘I don’t want to read alone,’ she says. So she and Heathcote read together. Her poem is lyrical, bracing, a raw evocation of a desolate internal world. She’s shockingly talented. The group warms up. An older Caribbean woman Liz assumes a maternal role, kindly chiding anyone’s self-doubt – ‘if you don’t try, you don’t know.’ The momentum picks up. We set more exercises, read poems, and discuss. Today more than one person tells us they’ve written their first ever poem.
A woman wanders in, ‘pottery?’
‘Oh, never mind.’
26th December 2019
Christmas Day over. Now there is a stronger sense of belonging perhaps, a little more hope – but, with that, the uncertainty. For those stuck with no route out of homelessness, Crisis at Christmas can be just a temporary break in the pattern, rather than a tangible way out of their situation.
Guests drift in with a quiet sense of purpose. They’d gone into their own worlds – or, rather, their poems. So we focus on one-to-one work. The only new face is Anna. She arrives worried, unconvinced it’s okay to join. Miranda sits beside her and Anna confides: ‘I used to write and direct. Theatre, plays. I read them like you’d read a novel – it’s the structure, you can learn so much from a play’s structure.’ They explore exercises – what does she want to try? ‘Oh, just having the chance to talk, share ideas – in my own head all the time, it’s not healthy.’ She laughs and looks away. Miranda asks, ‘How about some art postcards to respond to?’ They leave her flat, inadequate. The lack of inspiration feels a failure. But Anna’s passion when she mentioned the theatre – that would be the best link, Miranda thinks – work with character. ‘How about building a scene – three people who’ve never met from different chapters in your life. Just get them on the page. Explore the dynamic between them. Get a sense of how they move and speak in one another’s presence.’
‘Yeah,’ Anna smiles, ‘I can do that.’
The group scribble away in quiet.
A drama teacher named Ciara approaches us. Miranda instantly recognises her from the drama series Casualty. She invites our poetry group to perform with her drama class. A dozen of us sit in a circle. Sunshine – who has just joined – begins with a eulogy. The poem’s full of longing, of care – a protest against isolation. He tells us the story behind it: he discovered his friend’s corpse, dead for two days. ‘One day,’ he tells us, ‘I woke up with…a sense, a feeling. My friend – I called him four times in an hour. No reply. Knew something was up. For two years he was in decline – since his girlfriend died. Watching someone slowly die like that is tragic. He ate only bread and water…I went to his block. Didn’t get a reply. Rang any buzzer. Random woman let me in. Went up to his flat – it was locked, so went in through a window. Didn’t even worry about looking like a burglar or nothing. Inside, called his name – no reply – went to the bedroom… It was weird – his feet were calling me. Though he was dead it was as if he was speaking to me through his feet.’
This leads to a profound chat on isolation. ‘Look – what I just wrote – families are too divided these days. I’m saying how we should look after each other. Accept each other no matter what we think of each other. You don’t have to like each other to care. I’ve been scapegoated a lot for talking against isolation – but it leads to terrible things. But people don’t want to address it do they?’
Ciara breaks us into pairs; one-on-one questioning of the other about their family, then swap roles. The conversations waterfall. We go round and report what was discussed. Anna had asked the questions throughout, avoiding having to answer any herself – ‘I’ve got no family anyway so had nothing to contribute,’ she says. Miranda interrupts: ‘Anna – there’s a huge story in that silence.’ She nods then reflects: ‘for me there was no-one to disconnect from. I never had any connections to begin with – I’ve been alone from the start. Everything that could have happened to me had happened by the time I was one-and-a-half.’ She fingers the work she wrote that morning. She asks, ‘How could I know? How could I know what it was to have a loving family? To miss them? There had never been anyone.’ She broke off. Then says ‘I have something to read’ – explains the concept – ‘but I didn’t get past the first part.’ It’s the voice of her aged three sent off by her mother to her abusers.
I am three
this is too old for me
After she reads the room is still. ‘I’ve not spoken about this ‘till a few months ago.’ The poem is fierce: a quiet catalogue of injustice, fury and vulnerability. There is palpable outrage in the room in solidarity. Anna looks relieved to see others crying – perhaps after so long of that truth being denied. ‘I wasn’t sure people would find it interesting.’ A volunteer speaks up. ‘I can’t explain how important it was for me to hear that poem. I work with young people who are victims of abuse. You’ve given a voice to something I see with these kids everyday…I didn’t have that before… Thank you. I will take this forward with me.’
Anna’s pleased and a bit puzzled: ‘I only started talking about it for the first time a few months ago. This is the first time I’ve written about it. I’m 47. Everyone I went to – GPs, councillors – they just thought I needed a good cry, some prozac, whatever. No-one understood.’ The abuse had eclipsed Anna’s formative years – and the years that followed, even after she was safe. For these few moments, at least, she wasn’t carrying it alone. The limitations of what we could offer were stark and yet Anna was left with the vital impulse to keep writing. To connect. A beginning – through a poem – simple and small. That mattered. The response to it mattered. The knowledge she could write about this had triggered a release.
After dusk there is an object darker than the London night sky looming over Aldrich Academy. Burnt into the landscape the sooted remains of Grenfell Tower: a monument to victims of poor housing. The names and faces of the 72 killed on a balmy June night in 2017 decorate the neighbourhood alongside memories and messages of solidarity. Grenfell is now a charred tomb wrapped in a grey veil with a light green heart and the words GRENFELL FOREVER IN OUR HEARTS – spare poetry that encapsulates the artistry and spirit of this divided area. Today Kensington and Chelsea is both the richest and most unequal borough in the country. The mean income is £158,000, the median £65,000. It is home to 10,705 families, 1,441 of which are homeless – 1 in 7 of the population. This is just one instance of a wider struggle for safe, affordable housing. The charity Shelter report that 1 out of every 200 people in England and Wales is homeless.
In the world’s sixth-richest economy we could give everyone a home. That’s what they do in Finland with the policy of ‘Housing First’. Yet the UK doesn’t. A December 2019 Guardian headline reads ‘Homeless households in England rise by 23% in a year’. That month the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared: ‘it cannot be right in the twenty- first century that people are homeless or having to sleep on our streets.’ He and the Evening Standard proprietor Evgeny Lebedev teamed up to make a ‘vow to end rough sleeping’ – an aim few believe achievable under current housing policies.
All of Europe is afflicted: the EU-wide network of housing organisations FEANTSA report every EU nation is in the midst of booming homelessness and housing crises bar Finland. A quarter of the planet today are homeless or live in slums. The scale of these tragedies makes them feel inevitable. We slump into denial, blame the victims of the housing crisis for their own misfortune, or shrug in numbed resignation that there’s nothing we can do. Is there a remedy for the pessimism we afford ourselves? How to reframe the stories we tell ourselves that justify this human rights crisis? And where are the wellsprings of hope we can draw on to motivate action? The relieved expressions you see at Crisis at Christmas are enough to get started with.
Heathcote Ruthven is a writer and editor at New River Press. He has edited poetry anthologies including Year Of The Propaganda Corrupted Plebiscites and When They Start To Love You As A Machine You Should Run. His writing has appeared in International Times, The Idler, The Independent, Vice, and others.
Miranda Gold is a writer based in London. Her first novel, Starlings, was published by Karnac in December 2016. A Small Dark Quiet (Unbound) is her second novel. Miranda is currently a creative writing tutor for Skylight, Crisis. She is working with Crisis and New River Press on an anthology for people who have experienced homelessness.
Buy a single issue of our February/March edition of The London Magazine.
Subscribe to The London Magazine and receive a copy bi-monthly.
For exclusives from our archive and more, visit our online shop.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.