Writer and Big Issue Vendor Andre Rostant walks the walk and talks the talk about the Big London Night Walk 2012.
It was just after five in the morning and the burgeoning full moon sailed peacefully between fleeting armadas of little silver-edged clouds. We were nearing the end of The Big Issue's fourth annual Big Night Walk around central London: about us splashes of light: the pale spectral hulk of an illumined St Paul's Cathedral; the bright magenta Millennium Bridge stretching away over a dark, glossy Thames toward the soaring brown brick edifice of the Tate Modern, bathed bronze in the deserted night - this truly was London as seldom seen - and we had the poetry of this glorious view all to ourselves.
If you were not lucky enough to have been one of the 371 participants this year, you missed out not only on the romance of London by moonlight, but a shiny commemorative medal, a red Big Issue Foundation jacket, excellent convivial company, a highly invigorating massage by volunteers from the University of Kent, and - most importantly of all - the joy of contributing to the £70,000 plus that the event is expected to raise and the chance to reflect - in situ - that all the frenzied spectacle of the bustling drunken West End and all the majestic solitude of the City in the small hours may be ours by choice for an evening, but they grudgingly afford a tenuous home to many people - human beings who - along with London's great host of “undesirable” feral beasts: the pigeons, foxes - rats, must roam in search of hidden corners to shelter and sleep - day in day out, rain, hail, sleet or snow.
“Happy birthday Big Issue!” we sang, at 11.30 on a Friday night, and Leadenhall Market echoed cheerily to our chanting little sea of red. From a platform on the roof of an all terrain vehicle parked in front of the Pen Shop where you can pick up a Mont Blanc pen for £485 - presumably to write very very important things, we were lead by an energetic young man called Chris Bates through a mass warm up stretching routine reminiscent of the beginning of the night shift at a Beijing tractor factory. Then we had a pep talk from Joel Hodgson - a former Big Issue vendor who now works with Freshfields law firm thanks to a combination of his own drive and initiative and the “hand up” given by a Big Issue corporate placement arrangement.
Stephen Robertson, CEO of The Big Issue Foundation, eventually addressed us and, at his countdown we were off... in batches of 30 or so, with a scrum of good natured jostling, we ducked below the raised starting tape. Further along the pavements, our red platoons thinned to a scarlet line trickling down Bishopsgate and flowing West toward Mansion House - where we overheard one exasperated commuter call to her colleague - caught up in the claret midnight caravan - “Katie, come on...” she tutted, “it's a tour!” Throughout the evening our reception was mixed, although the overwhelming response from those who knew what we were doing, or upon whom the realisation dawned, was hugely positive.
A case in point: Alban Thurston - green energy campaigner and lobbyist - is a very brave soul - he has difficulty walking but this did not prevent him from joining the event. Alban was making his way through Bloomsbury, when a man whom he described as “a tall, distinguished looking figure” enquired “Who are all you people in red?” When Alban explained, the stranger declared our efforts to be “fantastic!” and donated £20 - adding “Make sure the £20 goes to The Big Issue.” The stranger in question turned out to be the actor/writer Rupert Everett who was gratified to hear that Alban had enjoyed his recent book.
The 12 ½ mile (20km) Big Night Walk took us as far North as Euston Road, West to Oxford Circus and as far South as Lambeth Bridge in four stages and we enjoyed snacks (largely courtesy of Sainsbury, Prêt and Bounce Balls) and drinks at several venues which were kindly and generously kept open into the early hours for us. Our first stop was The Foundling Museum: original site of a hospital for abandoned children, established by Thomas Coram in 1741. The Coram Foundation, now housed nearby, carries on charity work with children to this day - much of it crucial in preventing children separated from their families, or in care, from ending up on the streets.
Walkers included staff and volunteers from both the Big Issue Foundation and the magazine, and vendors. As Stephen Robertson put it: it is “good for an individual to take part in something bigger, relating a vendor with working in the community to being part of the community...” He reminded me that the Big Night Walk “has its origins in people who are new to the street” because they “often walk all night because they feel insecure.”
HSBC London Region has chosen to work with The Big Issue Foundation as a charity partner for 2011/2012, and this year the Bank's staff turned out in force - a creditable 120 of them. Graham Booth, an HSBC Community Support Officer, was on his second Big Night Walk this year and his reflections on the evening illustrate the significance to him of his involvement with The Big Issue Foundation. Graham talks about “Just how much I've loved working with Big Issue vendors and The Big Issue Foundation over the last couple of years and how much fun Friday night was. It was also wonderful seeing how many people were prepared to give up their Friday night to do the walk - some of them for the 2nd or 3rd year in a row.” “I understand homelessness to be more than people might at first think. Sleeping rough is just one aspect...I realise that everyone's story is different - the only thing that's the same is how much the Big Issue / Big Issue Foundation has helped them.”
Graham is right: living on the street is just one of many ways of experiencing homelessness. It is, though, an especially pernicious and harrowing existence: another article in The Big Issue this week tells us of research commissioned by Crisis showing that people in Britain without a home can expect to die at the age of 47 - a full 30 years younger than most others. This is why the Big Night Walk is specifically aimed at raising awareness of that endless trudging pilgrimage for somewhere to shelter body and soul. Buying and selling The Big Issue magazine is one of the few viable ways that individuals on the streets - for whom finding, let alone holding down, paid employment would be nearly impossible - to gain legitimate money independently and to give meaning to their otherwise downward spiralling quest, transforming it into a purposeful journey back into society, which is the journey The Big Night Walk contemplates.
Time and time again, the stories of fellow walkers - of all ages - reinforced my faith in humanity - their genuine struggle to understand the emotional and logistical exigencies of homelessness. Ramesh, a young married HSBC London Region worker made sterling, heartfelt efforts to give me guidance about my own housing situation - the beauty of this was not that we found any solution, but that this young man was giving thought to and reflecting on homelessness in a very uncommon way - that it was clear he will share the story of this experience and this conundrum with others for years to come. Diane Chotikul, a social worker all the way from the United States was delighted to have been able to walk, along with her husband, John, and she told us about the hardship experienced by guests at a Baltimore night shelter where she works.
After pausing at All Souls Clubhouse, near Great Portland Street, many of us by now adorned with glow stick necklaces and bangles, we weaved our way through Soho and Covent Garden - at three in the morning, still teeming with crowds enjoying a Friday night out - a carnival jumble of happy people, drunks, laughter, beggars, reckless rickshaws and equally reckless floods of traffic, arguments, puddles of vomit with - if you looked thoughtfully - occasional doorway drowsers cocooned in coats, blankets or sleeping bags, on cardboard. Even on a mild night, when you get up after any fitful rest you manage to snatch in these places, parts of you are numb and you are almost as tired as when you lay down.
We had paramedics on hand - at least one shadowing us on his bicycle - and there was an occasional walker who needed their attention. Some of us did not complete the route, but in truth, the achievement for most participants lies in that awareness, that charitable spark which brought them out in the first place.
By the time we reached Conway Hall it was after four in the morning and I was well toward the back of the thin red line. I had already missed the widely acclaimed music of Gadjo Yog, Samantha Jean Scuffham and Tim Lacy. Now Venus had joined the moon in a radiant game of celestial hide and seek among the sparse clouds and for the last few miles, down, over the Thames, along Bankside and back over London Bridge to Leadenhall, the streets were all but empty. In fact, it was a relief to find the Market still bright and busy with resting walkers and volunteers - a welcoming hot sandwich, tea, coffee and juice.
Among the finishers, a band of 20 or so children from Ringwood School in Hampshire (now becoming regular (voluntary!) participants in the event) lead by teacher Helen Hoff - chatted while they waited for their coach. One of their number, Katherine Fleckney has written an article about the walk from the students' perspective which should be accessible on the Internet soon.
Those I spoke with or contacted later said it had been “A wonderful night - thank you, Big Issue!” “Thank you all for a wonderful experience.” There was a tangible glow from Margo, a 20 year old politics student who had not only volunteered herself but had “forced” her mother and boyfriend to come along, too - she had wanted “to make a difference in homeless peoples' lives” - which she, along with all those who came along, most definitely has done. Like Big Issue Foundation team member Silja Andersen, I found it truly humbling and rewarding “to see so many happy faces.” I can conceive of no “thank you” big or loud enough for such selflessness.
Nor is it only London that hosts a Big Night Walk - If you are reading this article before The Big Brum Night Walk on Friday 5 October, you have the opportunity “to see Birmingham in a whole new light” Register Now. The money you raise will go directly toward helping local vendors who are homeless or vulnerably housed.
If not, there's always next year!