I have been living in England for a while now, albeit in rather straitened circumstances, as my friends would know. While it is not exactly what I had hoped it to be, and I have received three marriage proposals from very old men of questionable sanity, and it isn't even cold yet, the thing that has struck me the most is the large number of people without homes. England has always had poverty in a rather maudlin way; what Americans would once have called "cute", and I remember reading about tramps and err people in caravans in Enid Blytons and Richmal Cromptons. Unquestionably cute in childhood, now I see people without homes on the street in the cold, and some of them definitely die in winter. On park benches, curled up on stairs, some of them puffing away on cigarettes-given-as-alms, some of them selling newspapers, they stare nonchalantly and vacantly at the cold grey skies. I wonder how they feel, sometimes as I sit and contemplate England on lonely park benches, I must have the same cold vacuity on my face-which is why I have spoken to many homeless people by now. Some of my newly made friends think I am insane and "funny" which, of course I am, but I plea a healthy insanity, and am now trying to structure some kind of method into the madness.
Therefore, in my little way, I shall chronicle the stories of some homeless people. It is a little project that I have vowed to undertake, and this not a pretentious Down and Out etc project. You see, most intelligent people take success for granted, but though I know I am intelligent enough to string some beautifully poetic sentences after drinking tequila that somebody else has paid for, I am not successful. This is largely my own fault because I have an ugly naivete that prevents me from doing things with force and conviction. I am dazzling but only in my own mind, and to my own self. This can be a problem when you appear for interviews and suchlike; because you cannot convey your, as the Americans so succinctly put it, awesomeness.
So yes, I think everyone loves me like my grandmother does, loving benevolence that bestows and compliments- and a lot of homeless people are like that. They have trusted people-spouses, children, relatives, friends, the government-and their trust has been betrayed. They have been stripped of money, dignity, friends, everything that we-trained as good liberals-take for granted. Many of them have dogs. Big dogs keep them warm in winter. They love their dogs very much. They love their dogs far more than we love them. Some of my friends give homeless people a pound or so. The kindness of strangers can be overwhelming. Some of my friends (and that includes myself) spare a cigarette. For me, that's a tremendous sacrifice. Every time I part with a fag, my hand shakes, my brow sweats, and my heart feels dizzy. There is nothing in life called a free lunch, but THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING CALLED A SPARE FAG. Therefore, I feel like a Christian martyr when I part with one, and hasten a homeless man to a speedier death. I am a very kind girl.
But really, my kindness is overwhelming when I actually sit and speak to homeless people. There was a woman who openly confessed she was going to get some stuff, ya kno, stuff with the two pounds I gave her. So what does the err stuff do to you, I asked her. The stuff kinda makes me feel at home with myself, she said. Her endearing honesty brought tears to my eyes. I would almost have given her another quid, except I needed it for a mocha. Besides, why would I help her have drugs that would make her feel at home, when I-like the other quintessential Western homeless heroine Antigone- was perpetually without one? Nothing doing.
That night I read Heidegger. It helped me, I felt better. Heidegger's prose cannot make anyone feel better, you argue. You are obviously foolish and not an Oxonian. You might even come from Cambridge. At this point my sarcasm is sickening me, so I will proceed to the next paragraph.
One day, as I adorned the bench in front of Balliol. as majestic Broad Street bustled in front of me, a man with droopy eyes came and sat next to me and salivated at the sight of my Gauloises. Camus smoked Gauloises. So you can see how very l'etranger I was, how well suited to the scene, how the poor bugger was dying to talk to me. So he asked me for a spare cigarette, and I was about to tell him that there is nothing in life called a spare cigarette, when I noticed he looked a bit like my favourite writer Borges (without the glasses, in his prime.) A remarkably handsome man- so I gladly gave him one. I thought he was a nice man, a bit of a junkie, and then he said, "I just lost my job." "Oh no" I sympathized. "Yes, I feel sad. Where are you from?""India."
"Are you rich?"
"Hmm. Would you happen to have 20 quid?"
"That's alright. Could I have another cigarette?"
"So, do you know I don't have a home?"
"I stay on the street now. I want books to read. And food to eat."
I suspect the books bit was to impress me. Alas, poor Droopy Eyes.
"India is a poor country, isn't it?"
Indignant me: "Strange you should be saying that."
Startled Homeless Man: "Hey, no offence. Hey, you're pretty. Do you want to go out with me? Tomorrow, 4 pm, here?"Startled Me:"Hey but where will we go to?"
Sad Homeless Man with Droopier Eyes: "OK, you have a point there. Hehe."
I brooded on this. Why would a man without a home want to date a girl? How could he? I mean, how dare he? I mean, what do I look like, a Dater of Homeless Men?
Me, Antigone? Me, Hamlet? Me, Mersault?
And then, I realized, we are so used to seeing people without jobs, without homes, without love, without success, we whose fathers have money, or something close to money, we sans merit, but with classical liberalism flowing through our veins- we suck. We're ugly. Our flirtations with the Left, with Marxism, with history and the Hegelian dialectic, with life and art, with authenticity and resistance, with our black, white, yellow and brown skins(and masques)- we stink.
As Baudelaire so nicely put, and Eliot so beautifully quoted, and I- in a show of dashing originality will replicate-
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
— Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère!
Of course the monster is delicate, you fool. Facebook is a very fragile thing too, isn't it? Sometimes the monstrosity of the changeling called social networking astonishes me. It is so utterly pointless, except we find an illusive home in it- a home within a home.And then there are some people out there, just outside this cozy English house, who cannot afford a laptop with an internet connection and they, unlike my poor third world brethren, even know what information technology is. Hell, they even know how to spell it.
La sottise, l'erreur, le péché, la lésine,
Occupent nos esprits et travaillent nos corps,
Et nous alimentons nos aimables remords,
Comme les mendiants nourrissent leur vermine.
(Now for the non French speaking people, this is from the same Baudelaire poem that Eliot did not quote,translated it means something like
Folly and error, avarice and vice,
Employ our souls and waste our bodies' force.
As mangey beggars incubate their lice,
We nourish our innocuous remorse.)
And now my French has run its course, let me bid you a teary adieu, my neighbour, my reader, my brethren. I go to smoke a cigarette and contemplate the perils of being bored.