Not too long ago I was in London for work, and by ‘work’ I mean playing some video games. Now, to be fair, it was a bit of a gruelling day.
Before the London trip I worked 8am until about 8pm, slept for a few hours, and was then awake from 11pm through the night. Covering a live stream out of Tokyo from 3am, I then had a 6.20am flight out of Edinburgh, made my way from Gatwick to London Victoria, and then from there to Hammersmith. Being in a crowded and loud space on so little sleep was both fun (because of the company and gaming) but tiring. I was most definitely rather stretched, sweaty and weary by mid-afternoon as I headed to Hammersmith Underground to make my way to Heathrow – British Airways had cancelled a flight, hence the different airports.
Now, London is a strange place. It’s where the action is, frankly, but I’ve never been a fan. I’ve been to a range of interesting cities at different points in my life – Chicago, Amsterdam, Paris, Hamburg, plus pretty much all the major cities in the UK – and London is easily my least favourite. I’m sorry Londoners, but that’s how it is for me.
For one thing, it’s a place where many of its residents seem downright miserable, and I don’t blame them. Life happens at 100mph there, and few seem to take the time to breathe and count to ten. It’s expensive while also feeling cheap, and I once had a woman actually look at me in horror when I asked for directions a few years ago – much to my colleague’s amusement. They told me you can’t just ask a stranger for directions in London. Well, that’s just rather sad, and it’s something I’ve done in every other city with better results. To be fair, on this most recent trip I asked someone in a shop for directions and they helped me, so there are exceptions to the rule.
In any case, back to the tube station. I was standing and minding my own business, dressed smartly while also no doubt looking a bit scruffy with wind bedraggled hair and a barely groomed beard, when a man appeared next to me and just started talking.
I would guess he was in his late 60s, but perhaps younger and worn down by life. Shorter than me (which is rare) at about 5 foot 5, his clothes were a little worse for wear and he was clutching a travel bag and a Sainsbury’s plastic bag. He had thinning hair and yellowing teeth, while his hands were blackened at the finger tips – the reason for that would become clear.
He had a strong Irish accent (Northern I think) and initially he was talking about Southampton train station; I’m not sure why and I struggled to get that context out of him. He quickly moved on and explained that he’d had a charity volunteer asking him for money, but that he needed the pound more than them as his flat had burned down.
For my part, I mainly just listened, occasionally pitching in with sympathetic comments. From what he told me he’d woken up to discover a fire in his flat, so he grabbed what he could and got out while waiting for the Fire Brigade. He explained that he’d lost everything, and multiple times talked about ‘gardening stuff’ he’d collected for thousands of pounds; he’d seemingly built up this equipment to do some work as a handyman on people’s gardens and property.
I’m giving you the short version, as over the course of five minutes he often repeated points over and over. He then said the police had held him for 24 hours on suspicion of starting the fire himself. They’d let him go but he was still a ‘suspect’, though he was bemused as to why he’d burn down his flat and leave himself broke and homeless; this is only his side of the story, of course.
Now he was trying to figure out where to sleep, and that was the crux of it. He didn’t want anything from me, this wasn’t a build-up to asking for money, he just wanted someone to talk to. In addition to losing his home and being broke in London, I think a big problem he had was loneliness. A lifechanging event had happened and he didn’t seem to have anyone to share it with. All I did was stand there, engage and listen to him.
It was an encounter that I found saddening, of course, empathetic of the plight this man seemed to be in, and not having much to offer him but a sympathetic ear. Yet looking around the station most were visibly trying to avoid him, as if his poverty and desperation was infectious. A nearby woman actually looked at him and visibly gestured that he was unhygienic, an act so childish and callous that I had no idea how to react.
My train arrived, I wished him the best and he returned the favour, smiling as I departed – “Remember, money isn’t everything” were his final words to me. I was just a random guy, but in a world that is sometimes incredibly cruel and shitty he was grateful to have simply had a conversation.
I hope he’s alright, though I worry he won’t get far without help from someone, somewhere. I’m not sure if I could have done much for him. Should I have offered a bit of money, would that have offended him? Too late to say.
Why did I write this? I guess I wanted to recount the tale because we all fear loneliness, having nothing or no-one and finding little sympathy from others. I worry sometimes about my future life, like everyone does. I’m the youngest in my family and I’m single, and have lost touch with so many of my friends – I have time to try and fix these things, of course, but don’t want to end up a 70 year-old on my own.
I also wrote this to highlight that, as a species, we do show some signs of drifting away from each other, losing the ability to help and support those weaker or less fortunate than ourselves. It’s easy to get sucked into our lives and ambitions, while being ‘winners’ is highlighted by some as the biggest priority in life. I happen to think that the greatest reflection of a society is how they treat those that need the most help. A lot of the time people do show incredible humanity, and demonstrate heartening acts of kindness to help others. Yet there are aspects of current life that show the opposite – vulnerable people are pushed out, shunned and isolated.
I think people can be amazing, generous and thoughtful. I just hope those instincts win through, and that we don’t descend into being a society where those out of luck and with nothing to their name are left to wander alone, desperate for even the simplest human connection or show of empathy.