By Niall Walker
Despite all his suffering, Fraser’s diary is a journal which seeks to inspire hope.
Britain’s winter chill of 2017/8 will live long in the memory. The tabloid-christened ‘Beast from the East’ bought snow to even the most pollution-choked corners of London. 51 000 died, and national temperatures dropped to -15.
It may not have been the coldest weather in living memory (that came in 2010/11) but its particular tragedy lay as much in the situation on the ground as in the atmosphere.
The government’s austerity policies have seen welfare and social security slashed in a society where wages have fallen 10% in a decade. The result, predictably, has been an increasing number unable to pay rents, forced in to poor temporary accommodation or a life on the streets.
Rough sleeping numbers have risen by 169% since 2010. One of those huddling for warmth under moonlight is Andrew Fraser. When I met him in Freedom Press’ bookshop in Aldgate, his was the face of a man worn down by the exhaustions and anxieties which rough sleeping bring on. Yet when he started reading from his new book, Invisible: Diary of a Rough Sleeper, his weathered fatigue gave way to a bristling enthusiasm.
One big, ugly, smelly blot
Invisible mixes Fraser’s diary entries over a year with analysis of homelessness in Britain today, as well as updates from direct action groups across the country. Each section is written with eloquence and indignation. It is Fraser’s first hand accounts, however, which left me most breathless. “If even one London park was to declare itself a safe zone for homeless people, then they would all gather there.” he excoriates. “Then we would finally see the scale of the humanitarian disaster facing our country and our cities….In one big, ugly, smelly blot on the landscape, our nation would finally get to see for itself what it has done to those most desperately in need of help”.
Though Fraser’s recollections take place between late Autumn 2017 and April 2018, this is not intended as a chronology of a brutal winter. Instead, it tracks the author’s battle to stop a branch of Marks and Spencer’s alarms from being turned on at night. It is an ostensibly trivial matter; yet its psychological impact could not be greater. “It’s the constant beeping which is the worst”, the book begins, “Mental torture served up be good old Marks and Spencer”.
This is the life for thousands of others, men, women and children, suffering the brutality of life without a home. Fraser’s account is a nomadic shuffle between equally inhospitable locations: he tries a hostel, only for the crack and heroin addicts residing there to force him to leave. He returns to streets of sirens and violence, where migrants are being deported and vagrancy is criminalised. Fraser even considers getting himself sectioned “so I’d have somewhere to sleep and they might have to house me afterwards”; but concludes the people he’s seen “coming out of mental wards lobotomised by whatever they’d put them on to shut them up... that wasn’t for me”.
And then there’s the cold.
“Four people in Ilford alone have already frozen to death this winter.” Opens one of Fraser’s tirades at establishment unaccountability. “Where is the public enquiry? If they have failed in their duty and allowed precious lives to be lost needlessly, there should be an investigation”. The intersection between political neglect and atmospheric activity couldn’t be more evident.
Yet it is not merely the inaction of central authority which the book reflects upon ruefully. Updates from squatters’ evictions highlight just how repressive and aggressive legislation against the dispossessed can be. The book’s analysis on these matters is rigorous and damning, reflecting just how hostile our society has become to those in poverty in recent years.
Despite all this, however, Fraser’s diary is a journal which seeks to inspire hope: not just in those on the streets like him, but in any one of us reading who is more materially fortunate than him. He watches us go by like footsoldiers, marching beyond his outheld palms without empathy, and “you know, in the moment I KNEW I was happier than they were. And I really did feel free of the matrix. And the moment is, really, all we ever have”.
What could be a more liberating thought, that a man on his knees can still look up and smile? Who can still hear a song and “feel like I was listening to angels”; who can find belief in the most random and trivial acts of generosity? Fraser implores us, the monochromatic hoi polloi whose frenzied legs cross his vision in their thousands, to “keep dreaming, keep believing in magic and don’t ever, ever, give up”.
Invisble: Diary of a Rough Sleeper is available from Freedom Press' bookstore, as well as their website: https://freedompress.org.uk/product/invisible-diary-of-a-rough-sleeper/
The proceeds go to Fraser and the wonderful people at Freedom Press. Your £10 may well buy him a roof over his head for the night.