Friday, 27 December 2013

If it's Christmas, it's Crisis

Let's start with the small print: the guests signed Crisis consent forms to release these pictures.

So. Dickens would have tried to make you weep if he'd seen Crisis in operation.

But there's no time for Mr Popular Sentiment. If you drop your guard and glimpse the enormity, the appalling insolubility of the underlying problem, or if the red rage coshes you from behind, do something constructive. Be a manicurist, make up the numbers for ping pong, unload food supplies, look after a rough sleeper's dog, give someone your undivided attention, sing.

Don't get dehydrated, don't let your blood sugar sink. Here, have a Quality Street. No, I don't know what flavour it is. Forget choice. The only reality is here, where any stray sparks of discord are quickly dampened by firm kindness and tolerance.

I'm at the West London Day Centre, the Downton Abbey of Crisis. There are tougher gigs.

We all know the chorus. There's no room for cynicism. You'll find camaraderie, instant life stories, jokes, hope.

'Put the date on this picture please. I don't intend to be here next year.'

'How long do you sleep at night? For me it's five foot ten.'

'Do you draw before you go to bed? I do. I draw the curtains.'

'Oh, don't do his picture. He thinks he's good looking enough already. He'll stick it on the wall and pray to it.'

A softly spoken guest, courteous and deferential, has a personality change at karaoke time. He knocks out I like the way you move by the Body Rockers. Cue tumultuous applause. Then he goes quietly off to the canteen on his own.

Make sure guests know what services are on offer. Would you like a shower? Game of football? Language tuition? Advice on housing or addiction? Sewing repairs to your clothes or bags? Do you just want to spend the afternoon asleep, safe, warm, dry, fed? Surrounded by scruffy and unfussy volunteers? 

I said unfussy. At this time of year I park all the crap outside - it's a relief, frankly.

The drawings here show yoga, exercise classes, the art and craft room, the hair and nail salon, karaoke. I give each drawing to the sitter as a rule, but I've kept some of the group pictures.

It's The Wizard of Oz on TV.

A guest grabs the mike and sings that Boney M song.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

She goes around showing the drawing to people. 'Look at this.'

It is herself.

Please scroll down for more images.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Uneaseful death

For with my own eyes I saw the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her, 'Sibyl, what do you want?' she replied, 'I want to die.' (Petronius, Satyricon)

But she couldn't.

As the price for her virginity, the Sibyl had asked Apollo for as many years of life as the grains of sand she could hold. But she rejected him and he punished her. She had forgotten to ask for continuing youth and beauty. Over a thousand years she dwindled to nothing more than a voice.

Doctors can dish out what feels like immortality when we don’t want it. If we're fit enough to get to a cliff top, we can jump. For some, there’s a ghastly trip to that Swiss clinic. But if we can't make even that journey, what then?

I thought today’s hearing, about assisted suicide, might be unbearable but the courtroom formality anaesthetises emotions to an extent. It’s tense though. Before the start, a barrister confesses to a court official: ‘I’ve already knocked over one of those jugs.’

Nine justices are hearing R (on the application of Nicklinson and another) v Ministry of Justice.
It’s too late for Tony Nicklinson whose widow Jane (above, centre) is in the public seats.

There’s a bit of bother with rogue mobile phones but the packed court is silently intent when counsel talks about cruel modes of death which near-helpless people have chosen because something kinder is against the law. Drowning. Asphyxiation. Dehydration.

At lunchtime the neighbours come to the foyer to sing carols: the Treasury Singers are raising money for Crisis. The holly bears a berry as red as any blood, as sharp as any thorn, as bitter as any gall. The law’s prevailing view about the right to assisted suicide is a Christian one. For discussion today is an unholy stew of human rights, the Suicide Act 1961, compassion, morals. What’s Parliament going to do? ‘There are some inactions by the legislature which are effectively decisions,’ says the bench today.

After the hearing I make my way through the dark streets. Strong healthy people step out in front of cars without looking, as usual. I meet a friend who’s a GP. I hope he'll be around if I need him for something terminal. No chance, he says. Not after Harold Shipman.

In The Savage God A. Alvarez writes that the American poet Robert Lowell 'once remarked that if there were some little switch in the arm which one could press in order to die immediately and without pain, then everyone would sooner or later commit suicide.'


River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl
Salvator Rosa, Wallace Collection

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Ghosts in the plaster: a thirties council block on Ladbroke Grove

I'm at Kensal House, a council estate on Ladbroke Grove which is a long road of savage social contrasts.

Architect Maxwell Fry's white Modernist block, a riposte to the stucco terraces at the posh end, was built as part of slum clearance in 1937.

Teenagers from SPID Theatre Company are giving dramatised guided tours of the estate. Who needs a Swiss finishing school? They are poised and polite.

Full of natural light, the flats were a pioneering example of social housing, each with hot water, a bathroom and more than one bedroom. 'They were called the sunshine flats,' says our guide.

It's a listed building so the answer's no as a rule. Lifts can't be installed, for example. The tour takes in an empty flat, recently vacated through death; you can almost taste the damp plaster. A resident tells us that the neat little cupboard in the hallway is where the coal was kept.

In the community hall, lined with bunting for the occasion, there is a slap-up tea with jugs of squash.

When the flats were built, the Notting Hill race riots, Peter Rachman and that deodorised film were still to come.

I remember another council estate where I arrived as a foetus.

Thirteen-to-25-year-olds can still get involved in the Kensal Voices youth project, which is in collaboration with the V&A, the Twentieth Century Society, and North and Central Kensington Libraries. For information about SPID's free shows, email 

More pictures if you scroll down.