right at the heart of 26 – an opportunity to flex our writing muscles in new
ways and, often, take something from that experience into other parts of our
writing lives. 26 member Paul Murphy got in touch recently to share how he’s
taken inspiration from 26 projects and used this to work with St Mungo’s
charity. Thank you, Paul, for sharing this thoughtful piece with us.
“Just 62 words
on you and St Mungo’s; I want you to write a sestude,” I announced as several
pairs of eyes registered a flicker of doubt at their teacher’s latest
implausible writing exercise. Then they got on with it. They were up for
anything I could throw at them.
thread that runs through 26 is a belief
in the power of writing and the harnessing of such a force by working in
partnership with like-minded organisations.
It was 26
Treasures in 2012 that prompted me to embark on a personal
journey of discovery beginning with an MA in Professional Writing by the sea in
Cornwall, that led to Spain and the publication of a book, that led to an
interest in teaching Creative Writing as a small part of aiding recovery or
therapy. For a while I volunteered for the charity Ty Newydd – The
National Writing Centre for Wales, again by the sea where I first encountered
the act of writing being used as a force for healing and recovery.
this journey has eventually led me to working with the St
based primarily in London and Bristol, and this year celebrating their 50th
anniversary. Bristol is a city with an acute homelessness problem that has
exploded over the past decade.
When I thought
about it, the issue of homelessness has appeared at several points in my life
over the years.
Growing up in
a prosperous London suburb in the 1960s, I was occasionally rebuked for being
lazy and told that if I didn’t watch it, I would end up on Skid Row.
This remained a vague concept until the summer of 1971 when I was invited to
spend the summer in New York under the care of a distant cousin. The cousin was
a Monsignor in the Catholic Church, assigned to St Patrick’s Cathedral.
did I appreciate the power of his position on discovering that the Catholic
Church is one of the three largest land estate owners in New York City. It
explains why perhaps my cousin met me at JFK and shepherded me out via a side
door and thus avoiding immigration and police checks. I was probably
technically an illegal alien that summer. It also explains why I was allowed to
work – without a green card – as a grass cutter in a large sprawling cemetery
in Queens. My cousin, you see, controlled all the cemeteries across the city.
He took me on
a sightseeing tour, visiting all the usual suspects, finishing up in The Bowery
in Lower Manhattan. He told me, with a hint of pride, that this was a No Go area for
whites and respectable young men like me as he pointed out the sight of
homeless, hopeless human beings, all men, many clutching bottles and sporting
long hair and beards. This was when I discovered what Skid Row was and
it has stayed with me ever since.
Fast forward a
few years and I was Euro Railing around France and Spain. Strapped for cash in
Paris, I slept out on the streets one night on a bench in Gare Austerlitz and
had my first (and only) experience of being chatted up and propositioned by a
postman. I moved on to Madrid and the South. This was over 30 years since the
Spanish Civil War, but I was shocked by the common sight of homeless people on
city streets. I realised that most had either lost one or both legs, presumably
in the war, and had to manoeuvre around on wooden boards with wheels on. A
penance for being on the losing side and deemed outcasts. I had read George
Orwell’s Down and Out
in Paris and London, but this was a very harsh reality.
Laurie Lee had
written of similar sights as he travelled through 1930s Spain, described in his
classic As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. In 2012 I wrote a
biography of Lee and crafted it from the perspective of repeating his epic
journey 80 years on. This was now Spanish austerity at its height after the
2008 economic crash. Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal all suffered when it
seemed that the whole of southern Europe was in conflict with the demands of
the European Union. I was struck by how tenaciously the new Spanish middle
class clung to their European partners, even as banks were evicting tenants and
foreclosing on mortgages. The level of homelessness was once again growing
exponentially in a modern civilised society. Is there ever an acceptable level
House”, Dickens captures homelessness and poverty in an area called ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’.
It is a London slum within walking distance of the privileged legal world of
Chancery and functions as a reminder of our responsibility as individuals and
as society for the wellbeing of our fellow humans.
It is a black, dilapidated street,
avoided by all decent people…Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a
swarm of misery. As on the ruined human wretch vermin parasites appear, so
these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and
out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers,
where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever and
sowing more evil in its every footprint than … all the fine gentlemen in
office . . . shall set right in five hundred years—though born expressly to do
it. (Bleak House, Chapter XII, ‘Tom-All-Alone’s.’)
Martin Wolf, a
journalist for the Financial Times, recently wrote an article on ‘Home’
Unlike a ‘house’ or a ‘flat’, a home is not something
concrete. Its meaning is abstract and personal. The place one thinks of as ‘home’
expresses one’s personal history, identity and relationships. Having a home is
not just a matter of safety. It defines one as a person. That is why
homelessness seems such a desperate condition.
A child of
Celtic parents brought up in London, I often feel stateless. I know what I am
not – an Englishman – but not really what I am. English does not appear to have
a word that captures the essence of ‘longing for home’ in the way that the
Welsh, South Africans and Spanish do: Hiraeth; Ekhaya; Pueblo. One word
that can evoke an emotional, cultural response.
for the Bristol St Mungo’s Recovery College (one of four across the UK). St
Mungo’s aim is to end homelessness and rebuild damaged lives. I joined them by
chance, although perhaps there was a subconscious dynamic at work. In the
recent past I have become rather too well acquainted with the realisation that
there is a very thin line between being a fully signed up member of the
residential class and being homeless. Relationship breakdown, physical or
mental illness, addiction, debt, a brush with the law, bad luck: they are all
relatively small steps leading down a slippery slope but as a combination –
I lead the
Creative Writing group. Attendance is good but often sporadic as rebuilding
shattered lives can be a chaotic process. Restoring health, independence,
stability and trust takes time. Writing takes its place alongside singing, Tai
Chi, gardening and other therapeutic activities.
A while back I
challenged the group to create a series of sestudes on their St Mungo’s
experience. Just 62 words. They took on the challenge of writing openly about
very difficult personal issues in an alien style of writing. I think they
quickly realised that the constraints of a sestude motivated them to think more
about their pieces and they engaged with the necessary rewriting process. They
helped each other, engaged with some light-touch editing from me and proceeded
to craft their pieces. I think they surprised themselves. Some of the pieces
were read out by the authors or anonymously at the end of term graduation lunch
and published on the noticeboard. I am very pleased that their work will now
also be published online in the 26
Some of the
pieces and background commentaries can be read below.
– Paul Murphy
GRADUATION CEREMONY, WEDS 03/04/19
Then No light, some welcome shade Zero self-esteem, identity blurred Terror of the present, no curiosity about the future Past allows no progress No reason to be Hole in my soul: emptiness
Now I like the shade, now it’s shared with others I am of service My job on earth is unfinished, I know why I’m alive That empty space being filled: nourishment
I didn’t know
I would become mentally unhealthy and, for much of my life I was OK. Increasingly, I was not OK, far from well,
although I did not see it, I struggled on.
My identity was blurred, I was a stranger to myself, had lost creativity
A number of
years later, acknowledgement and acceptance hit me and I sought help from
various sources. One of those sources
was St Mungos Recovery College. People
here understand, they understand and know so much.
From the get
go, I have felt safe, welcome, at home and relaxed here at New Street. Having attended some courses (which I still
do), including Creative Writing, I am now a volunteer here. I am preparing to look for some paid work,
but whatever the future brings, I will still spend time here, if you’ll have
62 WORDS ON
THE CONCEPT OF TRUST
I was at
Carrington Road for 2 months, then was offered a chance to go to rehab.
introduced by my Community Support Worker.
To start with I chose yoga, guitar lessons and then creative writing. I felt unsure but after a couple of lessons
started to believe and trust everyone.
Taken from me without permission A semblance of my old self remains What whole do these pieces make anymore A metamorphosis is taking place Like a butterfly escaping the cocoon, in comfort Darkness lies A shell remains on which to build The lightness an unfamiliar but welcome friend Slowly the butterfly emerges Onto a new dawn Nothing can be taken without permission
Here I am yet
again some time out of hospital. Another
episode where my mind itself has let me down.
Financially incontinent, socially toxic, alienating acquaintances, good
friends, memories a scant nightmarish blur.
Every morning my only bedfellows fear, shame and self-disgust. In a flat that is not home, in a city which
is strange. Am I condemned to be
Greek Groundhog Day – Rock-bottom
I chose the
phrase rock-bottom because I felt it is a good description of how one feels
when one is out of hospital and experiencing the big alienated low that comes
along to accompany the ‘High’ that has one put in hospital.