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:
So here it is:
The Shadow People
Droning ‘cross a field, away beyond
the hedgerow flowers
Tedding straw - tomorrow’s bales
a tractor counts its hours
On wings of wind is tinny music
snatched out of its cab
Tuneless whistling in pursuit
is muffled grey and drab
’Longside the field a shadow weaves
a deeper pattern of light
No puddles ripple or briers cling
to this early being of night
Blackbird cackle, rabbits thump
ascending skylarks sing.
It stoops, it hunches, walks upright
unseen from brush to thicket
A shadow on the undergrowth –
is lost and past the snicket
The driver’s eyes are locked and glazed
As up 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 by
Steps in the light is gone ag’in
the flicker of the eye.
Beyond the stream and in the bracken
silent, looking down
A wary roebuck , nostrils flaring
watches on the ground.
Cupped hands stoop beside the water,
sip, a thirst to quench
Sitting, sighs of resignation,
fallen tree a bench.
Shadows dancing with the trees
a dappled figure make
An old young man ill dressed and stubbled ,
slumped his rest to take
Before tonight a barn or byre
Before tonight a barn or byre
will make his day complete.
The wary folk of field and forest
watch this wraith go by
Tractor parked the driver homeward
’neath a setting sky
Behind the bales planking rattles
swinging gently stop
Shuffling through the straw to reach
the tractor still and hot.
Arthritic fingers grasp the smokestack
wrapping tightly ‘round
Body draped warm engine cowling
making not a sound
Tired and lonely, bales surrounding
sleeps and fades away
A city’s streets are all the same
when you have nowhere to go
Lying in your doorway
watch the ebbing human flow
Leave the city still and empty
to the homeless and the dregs
Circulation slowing ‘til
you cannot feel your legs
People look the other way,
why should they have to care?
You’re not in their reality
and so, you’re just not there
Pulling from a bottle
in a 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
dragged out of the river
Drunks have had their fun
and gone off, staggering home to bed
With luck or hypothermia
in the morning you’ll be dead.
Feel the numbing splintering cold
of winter through the bones
Life on the street’s a torture
when 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
when nanny State will deign
The milk of human kindness
to anaesthetise the pain.
The pain of arthritis,
the pain of being forgot
The pain of being pissed upon
the pain of being shot
By farmers’ rock-salt cartridge
and kids with airguns too
The pain of cheap raw cider
as it rots your guts right through
So when you’re up the bar next
to get another beer
Say "Cheers!" to oblivion, and
the pain 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