It was hardly an uplifting sight that greeted me when I left home on Easter Saturday afternoon. A very tall man with dreadlocks dismounted from a yellow bike and urinated in the doorway of the boarded-up pub opposite. I told him I thought it was disgusting. He told me it was none of my business. I said it was, because I lived there. He pedalled off, with two-fingers up.
In the next 100 yards, I encountered someone (quite discreetly) begging from smokers congregated outside one of the open pubs, and two little groups of drinkers, one more aggressive than the other. It's worth pointing out, first, that a bylaw specifically bans street drinking here, and, second, that this is not my usual experience of walking around this backwater of Westminster on a weekend afternoon.
So I called the police anti-social behaviour hotline – no, I didn't know such a thing existed either until I called the non-urgent crime number and was told to call 101 instead. To give the police their due, or the council, or whoever, they answered promptly and said someone would be sent. They even left a reassuring message later.
By then, though, I had got into a sort of conversation with the non-aggressive quartet of drinkers, or rather they had got into a sort of conversation with me. Yes, they said, they knew they shouldn't be out drinking. But one of their number was being persecuted by others in his hostel and they'd come down from their hostel in Notting Hill to help him out. One insisted – accurately, so far as I could see – that he was not drinking and had no drink on him, though he accepted that the others did, and were.
They then claimed, in mitigation, that all but one of them had fought in Afghanistan and Iraq; that they had loyally served their country and put their lives on the line, whereas – they rightly presumed – I had done nothing of the kind (unless you count opposing the Iraq war from the comfort of a keyboard). There was, of course, no way to verify any of what they said, and an out-and-out cynic might say they had observed that claiming veteran status was a surefire way of drumming up sympathy and cash.
But let's give them the benefit of the doubt. In his otherwise contentious Budget, George Osborne looked forward – without using the actual words – to the "peace dividend" that Britain could enjoy, once operations in Afghanistan were at an end. The money saved, he said, would go towards improving living conditions for the military, especially housing. I fear that it may not be quite so simple. The costs of addressing the problems of mental illness, addiction and homelessness among those returning from our wars are going to mount – however much I and my little bit of Westminster tries to move them on.