BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN
There’s a homeless fellow some of the locals and I have been helping out during this year of lockdowns. He’s in his forties and inhabits a tent in some woodland not far from our village. The owner of the woods was happy for him to stay there as long as he didn’t set off any fires. The local homeless charities worked alongside the local authority – they tried in vain to get him housed. He simply refused to leave the woods. He claimed to be happy there under the trees with his tent, his vegetable patch, his chickens and dogs. The story goes that he used to live in a city on the south coast, where he became addicted to drugs. One day, after a girlfriend cheated on him, he escaped to the countryside to get away from it all. He always seemed harmless enough. The police knew about him and confirmed he was not wanted by them.
At the start of the last lockdown the man’s tent was in a terrible state of disrepair. The area of his camp was getting a bit gross with rubbish and there were used tins strewn all over. The local farmers convinced the homeless fellow and the owner of the woods that a caravan would be a far better bet than a tent, so a bunch of us wheeled an old caravan into place in the woods after towing it down some steep fields. We installed a few modern necessities, so all concerned were assured.
I saw the homeless man – soaking wet and muddy-faced – on Saturday when walking a footpath through those woods with my children and dogs. My children – innocently – refer to him as Stig. Storm Aiden was lashing us with its worst, a few trees were creaking and the river running at the bottom of that valley – normally knee-deep – was fast-moving and swollen to its banks. We stopped to have a chat while our dogs fraternised, and my terrier attempted the murder of one of his chickens.
“How have you been keeping?”
“Fine, Dom, thanks.”
“I see you’ve kept your old tent up! What’s wrong with the caravan?”
“Ah, I like to breathe nature and the caravan gets a bit too stuffy for me.”
“Right. But you and the dogs will be dry in the caravan, no?”
“Yes. We’d be dry in there.”
“Do you need anything?”
“No. We’re fine thanks.”
“Do you need anything, Dom? Do the little ones want a pumpkin? I grew a few nice pumpkins this year.”
We walked away with an excellent pumpkin. It was Halloween after all. I offered him some cash. He rejected it. He lives a good six miles from the nearest shop so I suppose cash is not that useful to him. I dropped by some tins of dog meat, some shortbread and a bottle of cordial on Sunday when the sun reappeared.
We know one of these years we’ll find that homeless fellow dead. In 2018 the mean age at death for homeless people was 45 years for males and 43 years for females; in the general population of England and Wales, the mean age at death was 76 years for men and 81 years for women. You can only sleep rough in a damp tent through a certain number of storms before your body gives up on you. I’m no doctor but he doesn’t seem the healthiest.
As we walked home my son asked me why “Stig” lived like that. Why didn’t Stig sell his vegetables and pumpkins and get himself a house?
“He’s free,” I replied. “He lives like that because he can. Sometimes one man’s freedom is another man’s prison.”
At that moment our Labrador left a present on the footpath. I reached in my coat pocket for a poo bag. I mistakenly pulled out a mask instead.
“One man’s mask is another man’s poo bag,” I chuckled to myself.
How to defend freedom – a subjective state of mind – against an invisible foe? Is there a more impossible task?
At least Canute in his apocryphal anecdote could point to a visible tide. How vain is the power of humans compared to the supreme power of God. Maybe a reminder of our human fragility was somewhat overdue.
Dominic Wightman is Editor of Country Squire Magazine.