SALLY AND THE SU; FFERING BUSINESS

At 15, she lived with the down-and-outs and became a media superstar. At 50, she's in the grip of ocompassion addiction. But, asks Maggie Parham, has Sally Trench now taken on a cause too far?
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The Independent Culture
SUNDAY MORNING in the cavernous Victorian chapel at Christ's Hospital School, West Sussex. Through a canyon of 850 distracted teenagers, a band of candle-bearers leads a tense, wiry middle-aged woman to the pulpit. Owing to unprecedented demand from the pupils, Sally Trench has been invited to preach here for the second time in nine months. She opens her sermon with a dig at the school chaplain, which calms her nerves and captures the children's attention. Then, in a powerful upper-class voice deepened by chain-smoking, she describes how, while Britain was indulging in VE Day celebrations, she was on her way to Tuzla, where 32 of "her" children had just been blown up in a mortar attack. "Evil will triumph," she growls, "if good men do nothing."

Trench is unable to do nothing. While most of us languish in a state of compassion fatigue, she has been driven from an early age by a kind of compassion addiction. Single-handed - she is not a person to take orders - she has tackled homelessness, alcoholism, drug-addiction, del-inquency, crime and, most recently, war. Three years ago, at the age of 47, she started constructing a series of subterranean schools behind the front line in Bosnia and, though not exactly a traditional Papist, has been voted Catholic Woman of the Year for her work there. "I have often been told to fuck off and mind my own business, but I won't," she says, with a wide, appealing smile. "Suffering is my business."

So used is she, in fact, to being with the downtrodden and distressed that, as someone not in obvious need of help, I felt myself the object of suspicion. Despite a big-hearted welcome - she lit the fire as soon as I arrived and produced an enormous dinner - she seemed uneasy. "You are so bloody well-balanced," she told me, not once but four times. It was not a compliment, nor did it seem wise to retaliate. Sally Trench's experiences in Bosnia have taken their toll - her face is grey and strained, her complexion papery, and behind her brash exterior one senses a person of such brittleness and complex insecurity that to upset her might be dangerous.

We met at her home in Wendlebury, the Oxfordshire village where she has lived for four years. Her house is unpretentious but large - upstairs are 10 bedrooms, one of which she has converted into an oratory - and she shares it with an ex-headmaster, an ex-convict and an unemployed Oxford graduate. The garden she has given over to a youth centre. "Nathan!" she yells abruptly, striding to the window to catch the attention of a lanky adolescent loafing down her drive. "If you buggers haven't cleared up your fag ends by 11am tomorrow, I'll kill you."

When she moved to Wendlebury, Trench's plan was to make her house a base from which to help gifted delinquent adolescents take A-levels. Then, in spring 1992, war broke out in Bosnia. "Like the rest of the world," she says, "I sat watching my television set and was horrified by what I saw. I thought, 'Hell! I can't sit here in my comfortable home and do nothing about this. I must get out there!' "

Though she had never met him, she decided that Richard Branson was the man to help. "I knew a letter to him would never get through his secretaries, so I composed a letter to his wife. 'Dear Mrs Branson,' I wrote, 'As a mother of four, I am sure you are as worried as I am at what is happening in Bosnia. I have no money and your husband has a plane, and I want to go to Split.' " A fortnight later, the flight was fixed.

In Bosnia, she worked her way around the refugee camps. "It was," she says, "the first time I had really looked evil in the face. When you're working with drug addicts or meths drinkers, however much empathy you feel, you can't help but think, 'Come on, it's your own bloody fault.' But these were totally innocent victims. I knew if I walked away, I'd feel guilty for the rest of my life." In a refugee camp at Karlovac, on the front line, she heard of 200 orphaned children from villages around Banja Luka who had been evacuated to England. She invited 25 of them to stay with her in Wendlebury.

"All the responsibility fell on me," she says, with some relish. "It was massive. But the children were very resilient. Within 48 hours, they were riding bikes around the house and laughing and playing with the dogs. We produced three huge meals a day and made the sitting-room a dormitory. It was marvellous."

By November the war in Bosnia had escalated, and she began to feel that it was time to go back. "The children had made me promise to find their brothers and sisters and bring them to England too." But as Trench arrived in Split, the British Government brought in visa restrictions barring further entry to refugees. "I wrote a furious letter to the Times," she says, "and then I vowed that if I couldn't bring the children out I'd go to them." And so her pilgrimages started. Last week, she clambered into her three-and-a-half-ton Ford truck and set off for Bosnia for the 22nd time. "I'm about the oldest person in aid there now," she says with ill-disguised satisfaction. "People get quickly burned out. I have been kept going by immense stamina, a crazy sense of humour and faith in my God."

SALLY TRENCH has possessed these three qualities to an unusual degree from an early age. Born in Woking at the end of the war, she grew up in London in what would appear to have been a conventional, successful middle- class family. Her father - now Sir Peter Trench - was in the housing industry (at one point, managing director of Bovis). The family would spend the week in St John's Wood, north London, and weekends at a country house near Billingshurt, Sussex. Yet her early life was so troubled - both parents worked, she complains, and she was brought up by a nanny - that she says she has now almost entirely blocked out memories of her first 10 years. "I am sure I was to blame, but I felt trapped, unhappy and terribly unloved. I suffered ghastly emotional pain, and the more unhappy I became, the more badly I behaved." On her seventh birthday, for instance, she was given a watch, which she promptly stamped into the floor. At 15, as her elder brother was made head boy of Ampleforth, she was expelled from her fifth convent school. "I was," she says, "the obvious humiliation of parental expectation. The more I rebelled, the worse my relationship with my parents became."

Yet despite, or because of, this unhappiness, she grew up with what she describes as "a sense of mission". "Perhaps it was escapism," she says. "Perhaps, because I was behaving so badly that nobody wanted me, I needed a God who thought I was special. But I have felt from the age of five that God's hand has been on me." After her fifth and final expulsion from school, she began to look for a cause. She found it on Waterloo Station.

Late one night in the early Sixties, making her way home after a party, Trench noticed a group of homeless men and women settling down to sleep on newspapers. "I was looking rather smart," she recalls, "and I thought, 'God, how disgusting!' But then I had a thought: 'Hang on, I'm meant to be a Christian. I must do something.' So I went and sat down between two of the dossers, offered them cigarettes and began to make conversation."

Among the homeless at Waterloo she found not only a cause, but kinship. She began to visit them secretly at night, bicycling six miles from her parent's home with coffee and blankets. Then she took to the streets, living either in squats and derelict buildings with junkies or on bomb sites with meths drinkers, many of them war veterans debilitated by shell shock.

Father Hugh Thwaites is an elderly Jesuit who remembers joining Trench one night as she made her way around the East End. She led him to a stretch of wasteland where nine men were sitting around a fire. "One man had fallen into the fire while drunk and his hands were badly burnt. She treated them and bandaged them up." They moved on to a derelict cellar to dress the wounds of an old man with an ulcerous foot. "She told me," he says, "that one night she had taken Cardinal Heenan around with her." Among the meths drinkers he recognised one of his old priests. "Dear Sally," Father Thwaites recalls. "She was a colossal, fascinating personality but unstable in some way. There was something pathetic about her. In her heart she wouldn't sit still."

This rootless, precarious existence could not be sustained for ever. After four years, Trench found herself in a mental hospital, recovering from exhaustion. As a therapy, she started work on a memoir of her time on the streets. Bury Me In My Boots became one of the bestsellers of 1968, eventually selling more than a million copies. "From walking the streets of London being called a whore because of what I looked like and who I lived with," she says, "I became Joan of Arc of bloody England. Here was an intelligent, bright-eyed, not unpretty girl from an upper-class background who had gone to live with the homeless. It was a media paradise of a story, and did they make something of it."

Still only 19, she appeared on the Eamonn Andrews Show and was invited to a cocktail party at Buckingham Palace. "I thought the Duke of Kent was a waiter," she remembers with a wild laugh. "God, I was rude to him. Then the Duke of Edinburgh came up and said, 'I'm afraid I've only read half your book but I do want to know how you avoided being raped.' " MGM wanted to make a musical: The Sally Trench Story. She refused. "I had visions of Julie Andrews dancing around a bomb site singing: 'Meths, glorious meths.' I thought, no!"

She fled to America. She had planned to travel but ended up working with drug addicts in the slums of Harlem. It was, perhaps, inevitable; Trench had dropped so spectacularly out of conventional society that she was never really to find a foothold in it again.

By the time she was 25, she was back in England and a single mother of two boys. Five years earlier, she had married a Polish widower with six children of his own, then left him. "I was not," she admits, "a perfect wife." Homeless and without support from parents or ex- husband, she was looking for ways to support her children from home. Despite having left school with only three O-levels, she persuaded the Inner London Education Authority to employ her as an education welfare officer; and, with financial backing from a wealthy philanthropist, she opened a house in Menelik Road, north London, as a school for delinquent and maladjusted teenagers.

In 20 years, more than 600 boys and girls passed through her care. Her methods were unorthodox. When, for example, she found that one of her pupils had stolen a bunch of keys, she broke into his parents' garage and stole his bike in return. Equally unorthodox were her measures of progress. "If a kid came to me having mugged 10 old ladies in one year and next year he mugged only one," she says, "I'm sure the old lady wouldn't have agreed, but I considered that success." For her sons, it made for an unconventional upbringing. "I used to think all mothers spent a good deal of time in hospital recovering from being attacked," says Nik, now 22 and an undergraduate at Edinburgh University. (His elder brother, Christopher, works for the Burton Group; both children attended private schools.) But in Sally's Army, a 1992 BBC documentary about her work made after ILEA was abolished and Menelik Road closed, numerous ex-pupils testified to Trench's transformation of their lives. "Sally gave us faith that we could do it," remarked Paul Latimer, the boy whose bike Sally stole. "We could go out, reach it, grab it."

At the root of her success was her own Peter Pan-like refusal to leave her youth behind. In middle age, as she strides around her house in jeans, T-shirt and springy trainers, talking with loud, frenzied enthusiasm between long draws on her Yugoslav cigarettes, there remains about Trench much of the restless, rebellious teenager who ran away from home. It comes as no surprise that, as she became involved in Bosnia, it was children on whom she concentrated her efforts. "I was determined," she says, "that they wouldn't grow up thinking that the horror they had seen around them was normal." In 1993, she began to set up schools in eastern Mostar. "At first, the sniping was so bad that it wasn't safe for the children to walk about, so we dug out trenches and a room roughly the size of this" - she motions about her comfortably sized sitting-room. "In the cold and the freezing rain we had school. Then I got more organised. I began to take out educational equipment - paper, pens, exercise books." More than half of the children Trench was dealing with had had their homes shelled and had been separated from their parents and siblings. They were unable to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time, and her aim was that school should provide some sort of therapy. "But I still made the most dreadful mistakes. In Posusje - which means 'riverless' - I produced powder paints. I thought, 'Come on, darlings! This is going to be marvellously therapeutic.' What I didn't realise was that the town had no water. They were rationed to two cups a day. Were they going to waste that on powder paint?"

From Mostar she moved up to Tuzla. "At first," she says, "I didn't know how I was going to get the children to have the confidence to come out and see me. So I took 11 red shirts and 11 blue shirts and I stood in the middle of Tuzla and called out, 'Right! Manchester United Football Club against Chelsea Football Club.' They all knew what I was talking about, and we had the most amazing football match, our own little war. Then I said: 'All right, guys. Tomorrow, 6am, school.' They looked dazed. I said to the interpreter 'What's wrong? Is it the word school?' She said no, it was that they wouldn't know when 6am was. Nobody had any watches. They'd all gone on the black market." So at six the next morning she rang the church bell. "The poor priest," she laughs, "was frightfully upset." He will not have been alone. Thirsty for love and recognition, Trench operates with such single-mindedness that she leaves a trail as much of fury as of fondness.

She has left her Bosnian schools in the hands of Croat, American and English teachers and, with a Swiss charity, is setting up youth centres in Mostar. This spring she dragooned children in west Mostar into clearing out a shelled nursery school, and in May she drove over with a lorry-load of computers, hi-fi equipment and disco lights. Her British colleagues were bewildered. "People keep saying to me 'Why do you bother when it could all be shelled again?' I find that extraordinary. Surely one should do something for these children even if they might all be dead tomorrow."

It is partly exasperation with grown-up common sense that has made her turn for support to children. In the past year, Trench has visited more than 50 schools in this country and America, and they have funded her work. "At day-schools," she explains, "I simply give them a list of things I need to take out on my next trip and tell them to get on with it. At boarding-schools, I ask them to raise money. At Benenden I simply said to the children: 'The pocket money you would spend in two days - why not give it to me for the children in Bosnia?' In one month touring schools in America I raised pounds 30,000."

St Lawrence College, Ramsgate, has just raised pounds 5,000 for Trench. Its chaplain, David Blackwell, says that he has never seen anyone have such an effect on the children: "She electrifies them." At Christ's Hospital, the effect is similar. As the children gather about her after chapel she appears part Superwoman, part St Trinian's schoolgirl marvelling coolly at the cheapness of Bosnian vodka and cigarettes; one moment describing how she has watched children in Mostar eating rats, the next regaling children with tales of her own inglorious school career. "Hang on in there," she tells a truculent sixth former. "In two years' time I'll take you to Bosnia with me."

But to the older onlooker it seems questionable whether Trench will still be making trips to Bosnia by the time the sixth-former leaves school. After three-and-a-half years of Bosnia, and 35 years of driven philanthropy, the strain is beginning to show. Before talking in Christ's Hospital Chapel, she was retching over the headmaster's loo with nerves. Crowds terrify her. Outside a supermarket recently she found herself cowering on the ground in terror after a car backfired. She suffers from panic attacks if anyone near pulls out a white handkerchief (Serb soldiers once stuffed one in her mouth to stop her screaming when she was detained in Srebrenica). She eats too little and drinks too much. "I've been known to drink border guards under the table," she says. It is not difficult to imagine. Most worryingly of all, she persists in a blind belief that she is indestructible. If shell shock destroyed some of the men she looked after in the Sixties, might it not destroy her too?

"Me?"

"Yes."

"I won't be destroyed because my God won't allow it. As long as I am using my gifts in the right way, my God will look after me."

Only one thing, she says, will stop her. If the UN pulls out of Bosnia, the roads will close and she will be unable to return. What then? Retire- ment? "I will," she says, "be dead before I ever retire." Given that she has earlier confessed to a firm belief in euthanasia, it is a chilling prediction. "I have controlled my life," she insists, "and I shall control my death."

But, for now, she retains her appetite for life. "My dream is to own a racehorse," she says. "I want to keep it in training at the best stables and follow it around watching it win. I love that thudding of hooves. It gets the adrenalin going, just like being shelled. Marvellous." 8

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