It’s always better when it’s a story.
There’s a lady – let’s call her Arwen – at my publishers, who runs a book group at a shelter down in Shoreditch. Two of her regular attendees read some of my books, and enjoyed them. Arwen contacted my editor. Do you think Kate would mind coming down to the shelter for one of our book club sessions?
You won’t make any sales, my editor told me, but if you want to, off you go.
I don’t even remember thinking about it, before saying yes.
My motivation, let’s not lie, may have been heightened by certain things. Firstly: I like Shoreditch. It feels like proper London to me, a place where wealth and poverty collide; where the chain stores haven’t yet made full inroads and you’re only ten minutes walk away from something entirely unexpected. Secondly: I find it infuriating when people do not treat others with respect. In the city we pass the homeless all the time, and our government declares that poverty is the fault of the poor, and our society refuses to look at the rough sleeper in the doorway. I’m not going to embark here on complicated debates about homelessness; merely say that you should always be prepared to meet a stranger’s eye. Thirdly: when authors are invited to attend talks or panels, too often it’s with sales in mind. Your writer stands up before a bunch of people who haven’t really heard of them and won’t necessarily like the book, and out comes the immortal phrase: ‘well, this isn’t really relevant to the question you asked, but in my book…’ To be asked to attend something simply because your books are already liked, is a huge honour for any scribbler, and not to be passed by.
So, on a beautiful day, I wandered down through Hackney to St. Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch, which has been damaged and rebuilt it seems, half a dozen times in the last eight hundred years, and now stands as a not-quite homage to Christopher Wren and all his ambitions.
Arwen met me at the door, her face fallen. “The guys aren’t here today,” she explained. “It happens like this sometimes. Sometimes they turn up; sometimes they don’t. You never quite know – it’s just the nature of the thing.”
The project manager, a man possessed of a proper Londoner’s voice and a mighty beard, said, “As you’re here, I’d like to tell you about what we do.” He dragged some chairs out into the sun, and we sat on the steps of the church.
“It’s a shame the boys aren’t here,” he explained. “They’re quiet usually – try to talk to them when we have the kitchen, and you don’t get two words out of them. But when they’re at book session they just open up, I mean, I’ve never seen them talk so much – not even about the books, always, but they just talk and talk. I’m not a big reader, but these guys, they devour the stuff. You see them reading in the shelter all the time, and they can get through a book, like a big fat book, in like 16 hours, which I’d never do. ‘Course, don’t know where they are today. They might be out and about; might be hammered, you just don’t know. Once a year they dress up as pirates and walk to Folkestone. Never really worked out why, but I think there’s a story there.”
As he spoke, a woman came out of the church holding a book – the offering for the next club. “It’s really good!” said Arwen. “Take it with you. We’re going to meet up in a few weeks and talk about it.”
“The shelter’s been running for nearly fifty years,” explained the manager. “Now we’ve got a rehab centre, a charity shop, a college, half-way housing. It’s hard, with the recession and that, but things are getting better. Last few years we had to justify everything we did with statistics, and that was a bit soul-destroying. I have hundreds coming in and out of the shelter, and I may send, like, one or two now and then, to rehab. It’s hard to make people understand what that means, because they look at the numbers and go ‘you’ve got only 1% going to rehab’ and it’s like, yeah, but they’re the 1% that make up the 75% success rate at the clinic. They’re the 1% whose lives have changed. ‘Sides, you learn to measure success in other ways; in the small steps. It’s not just getting clean, and starting a life. It’s all the little things that we take for granted, we’re like, ‘yeah, whatever’ but actually, they’re the world. They’re the small steps that make the big difference. We’ve got a decorating company now, and we teach skills that you can use in life and it’s hard, it’s really hard, and sometimes you wonder why you do it but then you look at the lives that have been turned around and you remember. Because it’s not just statistics, is it – it’s people.”
Listening to the manager talk, I was reminded of a very simple truth: that my life, my existence, is no more than a tiny percentage in a government statistic on population and wealth, but 100% me, and if any man or woman can go through their life and say at the end, ‘I helped just one person change their lives for the better against all adversity,’ then that is a boast of which to be proud.