AT THIS time of year, we contemplate our lives with vague thoughts of reform, and plan purification rites (I haven't eaten chocolate in January for 15 years). Or we think about alleviating the sorrows of others. This is the year, we vow, for charitable giving, voluntary work, regular purchase of the Big Issue. But it was not for wholly altruistic reasons that I once spent six months working in a north London night shelter. I needed a roof over my head, so I sent off for a handbook of voluntary jobs, picked the community with a pin and was told to turn up just after Christmas.

The community's HQ, St Jo's, was a large, gloomy house undergoing renovation; only one room was in use, and that was occupied by a hippie who made tea and talked for two hours about how cool the guy who founded the community was. Then a minibus drew up outside, driven by what looked like Giant Haystacks's younger brother. He had come to take me to the community's other house. Within an hour of arrival at Hanky Panky Way, after being shown a bed in a shared attic room, after being introduced to the old, the deaf, the mad, the drunk and the unwashed, I was being mauled in a corner by a very strange, intense young man, a former worker who had "gone native": apparently it was quite common for overstressed volunteers suddenly to be overcome by the belief that they were George Orwell or Rimbaud, and take to the streets.

I soon fitted in with the routine: distributing prescription drugs and tobacco after breakfast, organising the cooking and cleaning rota, accompanying residents to the DHSS office, taking blankets to the council laundry, answering the telephone, making endless cups of tea for the nightly "Pad and Porter" session, when homeless men queued up at the door for a cuppa and a slice of bread and jam. Every week you got one-and-a-half days off: there was a flat half a mile away for workers to crash in. Once I was so tired that I slept from midnight until 7pm and went out for milk and a paper. It was twilight and I noticed nothing odd except that the air seemed stale: only when I passed a brightly lit pub did I realise what time it was.

After numerous changes of personnel - people went mad, ran away with the contents of the safe, suddenly got lives - there were three women in charge at Hanky Panky Way: myself, Vicky and Alessandra, the sex-bomb from Bologna. One of the sacred community maxims was: "Don't expect gratitude"; Alix made a painstaking minestrone, only to be greeted with "Wops can't cook" from the xenophobic dossers gathered round the table. Flamboyant, red-haired Vicky modelled herself on Rita Hayworth and demonstrated that it was perfectly possible to eject violent drunks while wearing stilettos and a neat Forties suit.

At the refurbished St Jo's, I spent a terrifying night when a drunken ex-resident with a grudge kept me prisoner in the office. For several hours the man, nicknamed "Lamb" in the way that tall people are dubbed Shorty, swung a chair over my head, or in unnerving silence held his fist a few inches from my nose. A lone chivalrous resident ejected him briefly, but in so doing was knocked down the front steps, breaking his leg and two ribs. The first ambulance crew wouldn't take him because he was screaming obscenities. Then Lamb, who had prudently retired to the park across the road while this was going on, returned, smashed in the front door, and trapped me in the office again.

Help finally arrived in the form of a large Australian, a rugby-playing trainee priest (I've been a sucker for muscular Christianity ever since), who dealt with Lamb by taunting: "I'll see you outside." He then ran round the park with Lamb in murderous pursuit. After an hour or so, when Lamb showed every sign of gaining on him, I called the police. After laying a couple of them out, Lamb was overpowered and hauled away, but for this treacherous action - the unwritten rule was that you never, ever, called "the pigs" - I was reviled by all the residents, who had suddenly found their voices after spending the entire night quaking in the front room.

Back at Hanky Panky Way, life was more civilised, with many hours devoted to the beauty routines of Alix, Vicky and I. Obssessive hair-henna-ing helped keep our minds off low points, which included going to someone's house and finding they had committed suicide several days earlier; having to change a junkie's tampon; tending a man with a gangrenous hole in his leg the size of a 50-pence piece.

Where are they now: Holy Joe, pugnacious Henry, Gypsy Dave and Mary, posh-voiced Peter, psychotic when the moon was full? I was sad to discover, when I last wandered that way, that Hanky Panky Way is no more: it's a car-park now.

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