Friday, 13 March 2015

Twinkle, Twinkle

Meaning, or the lack of it, is crucial to all of us. How do you find a shape and value to your life if you can't understand it? Our conversations with homeless people at The Wellspring drop-in centre are often about this need. Ernie, interviewed below, has had many hard knocks, but still twinkles with good natured friendliness. He'd probably tell you that his good cheer comes from Jesus. His religious belief is clearly his most prized possession, as it is for several people we've met. 

Below is the full interview with Ernie - we are currently posting blogs as an ongoing notebook of the source material that will feature in the handmade books of The Homeless Library. As with all these interviews, the opinions contained in it are those of the interviewee alone, and are transcribed here as told to us, having been read back to the interviewee and approved by them.

folded book, with Ernie's words re-written

Ernie Smith:

What makes homelessness? It's not just self-inflicted, it's circumstances. Very easy to get into difficult circumstances. You know it's wrong and yet it's like an addiction. Say, you don't work and you get benefits, well it grows on you. Particularly for girls, they think: I can have a house if I have a baby. A slippery slope. The only way to get back up it is find good friends and get Jesus into your life.

That all leads us to Creation. We couldn't live without the sun, it brings heat and warmth and evaporation from the sea to feed the clouds. All the food - everything - flowers, wheat, fruit, is from seed. And it's all grown with the help of the Lord. It's not evolution, it's Creation. He looks after us like he looks after the Birds and Bees, if you get my drift.

This organisation is run by a Catholic Church, with public funding. (Editor's note: The Wellspring is now an independent organisation.) The staff, Jonathan, Alison and Alexandra are so understanding. If people are aggressive they don't throw them out they can them. You've just seen it yourself a moment ago, with foul language and fists flying about - and the staff calmed it down. You learn here. For instance, on Sunday we've got Get Active and we learn how to act. Stops you being bored, you feel not disadvantaged.

Now I'm going to spoil the mood. How can politicians like Malcolm Rifkind, who say they can't live on £60000, say to us we should live on less than £1000? Politicians are on a fortune, but they don't come to our level. We've never known that degree of money but we come to acceptance. We accept the little we have, but we'd like a bit more, please. Never mind the government, if it wasn't for places like this, people would starve to death in this country. And I'd be one of them.

David Cameron doesn't know me from Joe Soap and when you aren't in someone's mind you are easily forgotten. A lot of people suffer in this country because of homelessness. Our own people are suffering. They want a job, they want to earn what they eat. I've gone a full day without food and I bet Malcolm Rifkind never has. I've sucked my finger to get a little saliva in my mouth at least.

You say you don't believe in God, well I can't believe in Resurrection, I believe in Jesus Christ through the historical documentation. I believe in what I can see before me. But there is an exception. I also believe in the human spirit that is implanted within our bodies. Everybody knows inside themselves what's right and wrong - and if you obey that voice, you get comfort, peace and joy.

I used to be a member of the Salvation Army, in Oldham. I'll tell you how I came to join. I'd never played a musical instrument, but I had a yearning to. I heard a man called Eddie Calvert playing the golden trumpet. He played Ho Mein Papa. I heard that and I went to get a book on trumpet playing by Humphrey Lyttleton out of the library. He said: "My advice is to go to the Salvation Army. They have instruments and musicians and it'll be practically free."

I went to the Salvation Army and the man I spoke to couldn't believe his ears. I can still hear his voice now: "The Trumpet!   This isn't a dance band! This isn't a brass band, it's silver!" Then he asked me "What about a cornet?" I blew it til I were blue in the face. "No? Then we'll try you on a tenor horn." Well, I were like John Peel, hunting. They shut me in a room with my one note and soon I could play a few more. Within six months I could play God Save the Queen, King Wenceslas and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I played Twinkle Twinkle to the whole congregation. That was my biggest achievement in life! Then the Salvation Army closed in Oldham.

When I were a kiddie we used to sing this rhyme about them:
"The Salvation Army sell fish
Don't buy it, don't buy it
It stinks when they fry it..."

But they're a wonderful organisation, the Salvation Army. They are teetotal and they've helped me not abuse alcohol. They're a uniformed organisation and they can be strict. They believe in God and they don't smoke or drink. Keep you on the straight and narrow, that's what they've done for me and many others like me.

There's not so many homeless people today because they don't need to be. Those that are homeless, sleeping rough, it's their way of life and they love it. Nowadays, if you go to an organisation like the police and say can you lead me to a hostel they'll do it, or take you to a benefit office. Then you're beginning again, learning. Eventually it teaches how to earn your keep instead of sponging.

Drinking, it's in the blood. It needs a religious person to say the answer is not in a bottle or a beer tin, it's within Jesus Christ. It's letting Jesus into your life, it'll bring comfort - and He will protect you.

Interviewed by Phil, Feb 2015 at The Wellspring. The Homeless Library is a project devised by arthur+martha to document the heritage of homelessness using interviews, artworks, poetry. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

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