BY MANDY BALDWIN
I’d bet my flip-flops and tonight’s sausages, none of the regulars at Country Squire Magazine have ever donned a blue and white wimple – no, not even the ones who attended excellent schools – but Mother Theresas come in all shapes and sizes, and CSM most definitely saved my bacon, and my marbles, to whatever extent they have been saved.
It had been a very long winter, and spring was a long time arriving, when they published my first article for them – the first time I’d written anything except transcriptions for months. It was all about survival, you see. It still is. But sometimes, something apparently small – like someone appreciating what you have thought, and written – can remind you that you’re not completely feral, and that once you hoped for something better. And they even kept my secret, that I am one of the hidden rural homeless, a tent-dweller, because that was all about survival, too.
The countryside is not kind to the homeless. You would think, wouldn’t you, that with all that space, all those close-knit communities would make room on their land and in their hearts, for people who have fallen off the side of the world, but it’s really not so.
I have always – just, by the skin of my teeth, with an occasional bail-out from a friend – been able to pay camp-site fees, so I have had water, a shower, electricity, the internet, although food has been a matter of emergency on many occasions. I’m one of the lucky ones, and I know how lucky I am because I’ve learned it is possible to lose what you think is everything, and still have a long way to fall.
I am not dead, found frozen in a public lavatory, nor have all my belongings been ploughed into the earth by laughing men with dogs and high-power torches and bulldozers at 3am, nor has my tent been confiscated by some pious council workers so that the problem of homelessness doesn’t remain hidden (apparently, a pop-up tent with a dry person inside it doesn’t touch the heart of passers-by as much as a poor sod curled up in the rain under a plastic bag.) I’m still here.
But to return to the dangers of being discovered to be homeless: in small, rural camp-sites – the kind which are open during the winter months – it’s far better to be thought of as ‘that mad woman who thinks she’s Bear Grylls’ than ‘that homeless person’, because if they suspect you are the latter, you’ll find your stay there is a short one.
It gets better, the further east you go. The south-east, countryside and all, is the front-line of England, used to invasions of all sorts, and so they don’t start from the basic viewpoint that you’re a stranger, spoiling their grass. They don’t give a toss. If you’re paying, you’re a customer. To be back in East Sussex is like slipping into a warm bath, which is something I remember from my previous existence.
I probably used to be something like you. I had a house, which I rented. Renting was a new thing for me, and is one of the few regrets of my life. I’d been there three years, in a neat little village by the sea; I was not in rent arrears, was a quiet, respectable, middle-aged woman, private tutor to special-needs children, an author with novels in the county library, a small dog, a cat, books on shelves, pot-plants on window-sills. I had a newly-graduated daughter, a newly-wed daughter, a son working overseas, an elderly father, favourite walks, volunteer work at the weekends -all the usual stuff.
And then, over the course of a few weeks, normality was splintered: my father died, I had another set-to with an old enemy, pneumonia, which meant I was unable to work for a month, and, a week following the referendum result, my land-lady served me notice of eviction.
You may not be aware that a landlord can do this, giving eight weeks for a tenant of any number of years to pack up their life and go. It’s called a Section 21. It can be delivered on a whim, no explanation needed, no dispute possible. I’d been warned – I supported Leave, and she didn’t. I put a red LEAVE poster in my window. I spoke at the village hall. I thought it was 2016, and I had rights.
In fact, I had no rights: without the return of my deposit (she kept that; landlords can always find an excuse to keep that, and disputing it costs almost as much as the deposit itself) as a self-employed single woman, without a reference from my landlady, and with pets, I was not head of any landlords’ wish-list. And into the bargain, with my home, went my job. I needed a fixed abode, to teach.
There was no help available from the local authority, who sent me a list of their criteria: I was not under sixteen, over sixty-six, pregnant, an ex-substance abuser, mentally ill, or an asylum-seeker. I was out on my ear, and into the bargain, the very fact that I went on the date ordered, was classified as “making myself homeless.”
I put my furniture, my piano, my photographs and books and pictures into storage, and bought a tent, a folding bed, a sleeping bag; I took my dog, Hemingway, my cat, Oscar Wilde, my lap-top, a bag of clothes, and went into shock, pitched on the top of a hill on a camp-site only half an hour’s walk from where I had once been a real person.
I am no longer real in so many ways, like all the invisible homeless. I have no vote, I can’t claim benefits, I can’t find proper employment. I have spent 323 days moving from place to place, no more than three or four weeks in each.
And there’s no normal way out, because I can’t save for a deposit, or put down roots, or even give a postal address. I’ve fallen off the edge of the world. Never think it can’t happen to you. It can. Like around 2/3 of the population, you are probably just one cancelled contract, one missed payment, one family argument or break-up or bereavement or spiteful landlord away from disaster. Nobody’s life is watertight.
I try not to think about my life – I honestly doubt I will survive another winter in a tent – but writing for Country Squire made me turn the pages back to the days when minus-8 was reason to turn up the heating, not a potential death sentence. Back when I lived in a house, I’d begun an application for Arts Council funding to take time out to write a series of novels set in the rural, coastal region of East Sussex, and I’d shelved this when everything fell apart. But, thinking about things outside personal survival again, cracking the ice on the tent zip, glad when the sun began to thaw the water-pump, the stories I’d planned began to live again, all the richer for things I’ve seen, and been, over these long days since falling off the edge of the world.
Luckily, the Arts Council tend to agree, and find this project interesting, and so do lots of people in the region where the series is set. The project is called “The English Seaside Project” and I think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.
It’s not about homelessness; it’s about lives, and people, and drama in four seasons of one year in a very particular place, which I love. Producing it will involve some fascinating events and people, and take me very far from the woman who woke up one morning in three layers of damp, dirty clothing, and decided to email a short article to a new magazine.
And lots of other people seem to be excited about it, too.
If the cold doesn’t get me, by December it will be full steam ahead. It will take some doing, and the Arts Council will take some convincing – but if they don’t agree, I will still go ahead and find funding to make this happen. That’s the thing about falling off the edge of the world. You have to grow wings on the way down.
If anyone wants to be involved, or is interested, then drop me a line via CSM, who will post updates about details and progress.
Can I ask you to wish me luck?
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