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Down and out: from Kosovo to a Camden Town doorway

29 November, 2018 — By John Gulliver

Bare-footed Keith Tyrer, on the doorstep of the New Journal offices in Camden Road

I LOOK at the battered notebook of neat handwriting setting out the life story of the man who spent his nights huddled in the doorway of my office – and wonder whether he is all right.

I shouldn’t be thinking about him, you might say. Who is he? A man on his uppers, with an emaciated face, wrapped up in old clothes with distinctively dirty bare feet, who used to gravitate to the office doorway late afternoons with his plastic begging bowl, yelling at passers-by, and, because, I got to know him, yelling my name out as well.

I would make my phone calls to contacts, perhaps write a few lines for the column, against a chorus of his muddled curses, and look up through my window – and know I would go home shortly and slip him a bit of money.

When we first got chatting he would tell me he had slept the previous night at the back of St Michael’s Church which is opposite the office.

Occasionally, he said he had to be on the look-out in the gardens of the church because he could so easily be attacked by other lost souls of the street.

In his life story, which is a page-turner, he points out he is an addict and prescribed methadone, and I mention that here because he told me about it in such way as to make me believe he had told other people about it as well. He had all the signs of an addict: an extremely pinched face and a tight, rigid look.

I would dearly like to reproduce extracts from Keith Tyrer’s life story but I didn’t ask him for permission, and, in my opinion, you have to get the permission of those at the bottom of the heap whereas you may not need to if they are at the top and live by publicity.

Where’s he gone? Well, days before he stopped showing up in the doorway, he told me that he had been offered accommodation at a hostel in Haringey, apparently somewhere in Finsbury Park. And last Wednesday was his last night at No 40 Camden Road.

It was press night for the New Journal and as I left late evening I said goodbye and pressed a few notes in his hand. As I walked away, I saw him get up and hurry away, and knew he was going for a “fix” somewhere, I suppose, in the back streets of Camden Town. I know one is not supposed to give hand-outs like that to the homeless but who am I to judge someone like Keith? He is in his 40s and had been played the roughest of hands, who could deny him a bit of pleasure?

I know the arguments against all this – it’s his own fault; he had the choices to make and he made the wrong ones.

But I have never gone along with that. If the odds are overwhelmingly against you from birth what do these choices that moralists go on about matter?

I found him interesting the first time I saw him last June – it was his unwashed bare feet that drew me to him. He muttered various reasons why he didn’t wear shoes – he was a vegan and bare feet didn’t smell!

It made sense. A few weeks later I saw him scribbling away in a notebook and he said it was his life story.

He had a harsh childhood, abused, ended up in a children’s home in Liverpool, then, as happens so often when you are faced with no choice, he was drawn into the army. This, of course, is unchecked. But I sense that, so far, he is telling the truth, certainly as he saw it. He said he was in the army and that he had been wounded in Kosovo in the Balkan war of the 1990s and when I asked him to show me his wound he pulled up his trousers and jabbed a finger at a purply bit of flesh in his calf. I asked him for his “discharge” papers, and he said he would bring them to me but he never did.

But I sensed he was telling me the truth about his army service because he never concealed from me the worst parts of his life, the times when he ended up in jail for an assault, sentenced to two years – a pretty long sentence which suggests he had been found guilty of grievous bodily harm.

In his autobiography, well written, sharp, observant, he has both rough words for the police officers who arrested him as well as warm words for those who helped him, and, again, he had kind words for his social worker and probation officer and, introspectively, condemnatory words about his own failings.

But, again, who am I to judge?

I know that thousands of war veterans end up homeless. I have written about them before.

Off they go to war, hurried by the beat of drums from the tabloids, and when those who see frontline service come home, brutalised and mentally ill, they are forgotten. The govern­ment no longer wants to know about them and they end up on the streets and, in despair, sometimes seek solace in suicide.

Who am I to judge Keith? As I said, he has gone, the doorway is empty, another typical scene from Camden Town has ended, and I am left wondering: Why couldn’t something have been done to help him all those years ago?

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