Leamington Spa’s south end of town has traditionally been viewed as the “less well off” part of town. It has a dual reputation for both trouble and (paradoxically) community spirit. A lot if this reputation stems back 200 years or so when money was poured into developing the town north of the river during the boom time of the spas and everything south of the river – the original old town – was left, not so much to fester, but certainly to scrape the barrel for whatever it could find to keep itself going.
Leamington is still to this day filtered by this binary north-south divide. The town in its genetic make-up is bipolar.
The building where I work is on the very cusp of this divide (the river) and this possibly explains the huge proliferation of drunks and ne'er-do-wells who seem to gather in the vicinity. I cannot go out on a lunchbreak or head home without encountering weather-stained men and women, all with beards and ex army ponchos whose aura of alcohol and marijuana would be enough to make a vicar hallucinate Jimi Hendrix’s entire Woodstock playlist.
You have only to pass within 10 yards of them and a hand will come out asking for money while the other hand clutches the ubiquitous can of Special Brew even closer to their chest. “Got a spare 20p, mate, I need to make an urgent phone call?” seems to be the standard form of address.
I must be honest here and say I very rarely comply. I have so little change available and what I do have I’d rather retain for the use of my family. I feel guilty though. As I walk away ignoring them – for that is what I do – I feel I am doing wrong. The old Christian message of giving when somebody asks still burns brightly beneath the thin caul of my subconscious. On occasion my mind even throws up a quick image of me on the Day of Judgement, fluttering my hands with angst, trying to explain my habitual parsimony to St Peter. Look, I just wanted to buy some chocolate buttons for my two little boys...
But then reality kicks in – and I use it to back up my stance even more: they don’t want to make a phone call. They want to buy more beer. Or more weed. Or more [insert your poison of choice here].But really – do I have the right to attach a moral authority to any monies that I may or may not give to someone? Once it’s given surely it’s up to them how they spend it and what they spend it on? It’s no longer my business.
But such a dilemma is not the reason for this post.
The other day one of the drunken bearded men again accosted me for small change. This time however he was neither drunk nor stoned. He was sober. He was compos mentis. He was bright eyed if not bushy tailed. We had a conversation. I saw humour and kindness and a shy but charming personality behind his eyes. I gave him some money.
Why now and not other times? Why now and not when he is drunk or falling over his own inebriated feet? Am I making a judgement call about intemperance? Does dipsomania render him ineligible for charity?
I’ve thought about it a lot since that day. I think when he approached me I saw him for the first time as a person. The mask of drunkenness that so disfigures a human being had fallen away and I saw an individual. I’m not saying I could read his whole life story in every line of his face but for that one unguarded moment I could see all the hurt that had ever been done to him – and that had put him on the street in the first place – there in his eyes. We connected. One man to another. It was a shock. It was emotional. I felt sad for him.
Since then I have wondered whose mask is the more deplorable to wear. Whose mask is the bigger social evil?
Drunkenness; the desire for unending personal oblivion?
Or the hard eye of respectability that sees enough to judge but not to understand?