Today the government's cap on welfare benefits comes is into force. The government's own Department of Work and Pensions estimates that some 88 000 families will have their housing benefits slashed by an average of £2 000 a year (that's £40 a week). Many will be unable to pay their rent and are likely to become homeless. It is estimated that between a quarter and half a million children are likely to be affected. (Figures from this article by Aditya Chakraborty)
During the summer I met an artist and poet, Paul Clark, who had been working not with, but among, some homeless people. He had spent some time restoring a cast-iron rose window in a listed building being used as a rescue centre for homeless men. He told me: "I'd take extra sandwiches and have my lunch-break with them; listening. And bit by bit I heard their stories, recording their tales and memories in the form of this poem, called: The Shadow People."
I found the last three stanzas of his poem very moving and asked Paul's permission to put them on this blog. He readily gave his agreement but insisted that the the poem should be be seen as a whole, the earlier stanzas contrasting the rural experience with the urban one.
So here it is:
The Shadow People
Droning ‘cross a field, away beyond
Tedding straw - tomorrow’s bales
counts its hours
On wings of wind is tinny music
out of its cab
Tuneless whistling in pursuit
grey and drab
’Longside the field a shadow weaves
pattern of light
No puddles ripple or briers cling
early being of night
Blackbird cackle, rabbits thump
It stoops, it hunches, walks upright
from brush to thicket
A shadow on the undergrowth –
and past the snicket
The driver’s eyes are locked and glazed
and down he treads
His mind has gone, it’s far away
with Rosie in the snug
Humid warmth with pints of ale
and embers on the rug.
Wraith-like it waits and watches
while the roaring drone goes
Steps in the light is gone ag’in
flicker of the eye.
Beyond the stream and in the bracken
A wary roebuck , nostrils flaring
on the ground.
Cupped hands stoop beside the water,
a thirst to quench
Sitting, sighs of resignation,
tree a bench.
Shadows dancing with the trees
dappled figure make
An old young man ill dressed and stubbled ,
his rest to take
Before tonight a barn or byre
make his day complete.
The wary folk of field and forest
this wraith go by
Tractor parked the driver homeward
a setting sky
Behind the bales planking rattles
Shuffling through the straw to reach
tractor still and hot.
grasp the smokestack
Body draped warm engine cowling
not a sound
Tired and lonely, bales surrounding
and fades away
A city’s streets are all the same
you have nowhere to go
Lying in your doorway
the ebbing human flow
Leave the city still and empty
the homeless and the dregs
Circulation slowing ‘til
cannot feel your legs
People look the other way,
should they have to care?
You’re not in their reality
so, you’re just not there
Pulling from a bottle
screwed-up paper bag.
The clocks are chiming midnight
and you’re far too cold to shiver
Lying like a corps that’s just been
out of the river
Drunks have had their fun
gone off, staggering home to bed
With luck or hypothermia
the morning you’ll be dead.
Feel the numbing splintering cold
winter through the bones
Life on the street’s a torture
you haven’t got a home.
A police cell or a hospital,
a hostel bed or morgue
For God’s sake roll on Giro day
nanny State will deign
The milk of human kindness
The pain of arthritis,
pain of being forgot
The pain of being pissed upon
pain of being shot
By farmers’ rock-salt cartridge
kids with airguns too
The pain of cheap raw cider
it rots your guts right through
So when you’re up the bar next
get another beer
Say "Cheers!" to oblivion, and
of being here.
Maybe someone from the government will read this poem, or similar, and recognise that benefits need to be paid according to need rather than a figure to humour the tabloids.
A concurrent approach would be to build more houses and, in the meantime, re-introduce rent controls and so limit the windfalls accruing to buy-to-let landlords