Unlike many homeless people he had no inclination to talk about the war, at least not to me. He was an affable man who had drifted into rough sleeping via Salvation Army hostels and boarding houses in the 1960s and 1970s. At least at the time of his death in 1994 we had managed to find Ken a small bedsit where, with a degree of comfort, he had lived out his last seven years. But to depart this mortal coil with only a care worker to wave you off is sickening and somehow I took this unacceptable departure as a personal failure.
Stephen Glanville’s funeral two week’s ago was a different affair altogether, but still one that brought its stresses. Stephen had died a month before but his body lay un-cremated while the authorities sought to trace his two sisters who were known to be still alive. I avoid using the term ‘next of kin’ because Stephen was adamant that his Thames Reach support worker Jane was his next of kin. Somewhere back in the recesses of time Stephen had undergone a massive rupture with his family and had been consistent in wanting nothing more to do with them. The sisters were traced. The silence was deafening. Whatever had gone before was not now about to be laid to rest by death.
So we gathered on a warm June morning at West Norwood Crematorium, a gaggle of apprehensive friends whispering nervously, eager to get on with it. A thoughtful, compassionate Minister spoke to us in advance to find out about the strange and turbulent life of Stephen. He wanted to keep the service simply with a few words said by a close friend rather than the full funeral paraphernalia. And so it was – and we were grateful.
I first met Stephen in 1984 as a street outreach worker at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, frequently referred to at the time as ‘Cardboard City’. Stephen was in his late-20s and part of the hard core group of rough sleepers who constructed elaborate ‘bashes’ from cardboard boxes in the small park. He was a troubled man who frequently pretended he had swallowed pills with the intention of killing himself or was heading off to hang himself from a convenient beam in a derelict building. This drama was usually placed by the various care staff who sought to help Stephen in the category of ‘attention seeking’ or ‘a cry for help’, according to how exasperated we were feeling about him at the time. Eventually, as happens with even the most chaotic and long-term rough sleeper, Stephen came off the streets, first moving into a hostel and later to a self-contained flat where he received support from a team specialising in helping people with mental health problems.
The suicide threats continued unabated, and in order to keep the level of menace high, he felt it necessary to concoct increasingly elaborate forms of suicide. Typically an inebriated Stephen would call a support worker at 2.00am to inform them that he had swallowed razorblades and had locked himself in his flat where he awaited a ghastly finale. The support worker would then call the police and meet them at the flat where Stephen, predictably, would refuse entry. Next, the door would be unceremoniously booted in by the police. We could not take the risk that Stephen might be, for once, telling the truth.
Around 1998 Stephen’s life changed. He stumbled across something called a Loving Relationship. If there is one thing that, in my experience, can improve beyond recognition the life of a homeless person it is this particular Holy Grail, sought by many but found by just a few. Stephen’s life became inextricably entwined with that of Max, a mature man of the old school with a cut glass accent, spruce and dapper, possessing the most extraordinary patience and resilience. There followed what I regard as Stephen’s Golden Age, during which time he was purposefully engaged in various activities including a local campaign to prevent the area in the front of his home from being a bus terminus. Most fundamentally, the child-like need for constant attention reduced. All this ended with Max’s death in 2004.
Homeless people frequently die prematurely and, at 52, Stephen was no exception. As with so many, it was the drink that got him. The signs were not auspicious when he moved from drinking in company at the local pub to consuming cans of super strength White Lightning cider in his flat, mostly alone. Nothing could pull him out of this fatal tail-spin. I last saw him at Kings College hospital in South London. A mask was clamped to his face to assist his breathing and he had turned the familiar, stomach-turning, yellow-brown of the drinker whose liver has packed up for good.
We stumble out of the crematorium into the June sunshine, the most motley of crews; Thames Reach staff, homeless friends, the people from the pub and neighbours who knew him simply as a friendly, eccentric, local personality. Each of us carries our own thoughts, pondering this complex, frequently frustrating character. A turbulent profusion of memories tumble over each other. We are gripped by feelings of loss, bewilderment, relief and guilt. Some remember how, after a disturbed night full of tension and worry after another threatened suicide drama they had fantasised about gripping him by the throat to press remorselessly on that fragile windpipe, letting the life drain slowly from the body…..
But here, finally, in the comfort of the pub where Stephen was a regular the stories are full of warmth and affection, the babble of conversation swells and peaks. Then, slowly, we sink back into our seats, strangely replete, finding consolation in the certainty that the world will be a poorer place without him.
Jeremy Swain 30th June 2009