#MilitantFactionsQuotes 27: One cold night in another century, the longest of the year, I realised I
Pixelation: Enter If You Can (1998-9)
When Danish photographer Martin Toft asked me to help him with a project about the homeless subculture of London, I didn’t want to know. I‘d been undercover for the nationals and I was sick of talking to the addicts, dealers and other detritus of our great city. More importantly, the woman I had loved from afar from 12 years had finally said “yes”.
But Martin was not only convincing, and a fantastic photographer; he shared my feelings about the homeless ‘community’. It wasn’t that they all wanted to be on the streets; it was that society didn’t give them a better option. Without wishing to idealise this harsh world, something pulled them in and wouldn’t let go.
Over the course of six months, my personal life dissolving into chaos and despair, I went out onto the streets to write about these people Martin was photographing. I visited homeless shelters, walked the streets with outreach workers, spent a night at the Christmas shelter run by Crisis. I also interviewed author John Healy, who had written so movingly about homelessness in his book, The Grass Arena.
But first I visited the Bullring, the infamous shanty town near Waterloo. The “bashes” were being torn down to make way for a posh new cinema. Written on one were the words, “enter if you can”. Martin decided that would be a good name for our project. I bowed to his greater knowledge; after all, he had spent six months sleeping there, recording what he had seen with some stunning photographs.
In structuring the text I chose to use a series of seemingly unrelated sketches, incidents and interviews to convey the confused narrative of a ‘homeless mind’. I found that the lives of Bullring residents weren’t that different than mine, nor were their responses to the cold fury of the world.
Part of our project was used in an exhibition at the Globe Theatre and was featured in newspapers including the Independent. Martin exhibited the project in Denmark and I have received a grant towards publication from Oppenheim-Downes Trust.
The Bullring has gone now, and we recorded this unique culture as it was being dismantled by a state which didn’t understand. In its place stands a gleaming cinema, where they recently screened a season of films about homelessness.
What started out as reportage became a painful journey for me, during which I recalled my own homeless experiences, found myself being drawn into this world - and very nearly died as a result. But I don’t regret it, because what we recorded will always be there. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly, but always our truth.
-From "Pixelation", a collaboration with photographer and artist https://www.martintoft.com/" target="_blank">Martin Toft. Read the whole text in Mark Piggott's fiction/non-fiction collection "Militant Factions" available in paperback or Kindle from Amazon.