PsychoGeography: Will Self

Down on the street
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Sam's Bargain Store in Burnt Oak - now there's a name to conjure with; an Aladdin's Cave in a suburb of Xanadu, no less. It was my first proper job as a teenager; proper in that I'd got it for myself. I'd ride my moped over there from East Finchley early on a Saturday morning. Where the Hendon Way kinked right into the Watford Way, and the signs began to promise "The North", I turned off to spend the entire day on my knees with a pricing gun, grovelling between the support hose of bunionesque shoppers, while I stuck labels on washing-up bowls and detergent canisters.

I only raise this now because something occurred to me even then, as I humped boxes in from the storage room or loitered on the phlegm-dashed pavement, policing the dump bins full of low-cost clothes pegs. And this epiphany was: that when you spend all day in a commercial zone it becomes oddly domesticated. After hours eyeballing Brillo pads, despite the masses tromping down its cramped aisles, I came to think of Sam's Bargain Store as an intimate space. I yearned to recline on the stacks of washing-up bowls, or even curl up in the basket of mop heads. It seemed if not an affront, at any rate perverse, that I could not behave exactly as I would in my own bedroom.

Over the years I've often experienced this angst of the agora, as the public space becomes private. It can happen in a shop, a church, or a museum; however, the transmogrification is still more radical when you are in the open air. We repressed, duvet-swaddled, north Europeans have a tendency to romanticise the street life we see on our little tours abroad. "Ooh," we say, "isn't it marvellous how the whole community consorts with each other, talking, laughing, eating, the children running about ..." What we forget, is that the al fresco picturesque is a necessity when homes are too crowded to go to, or don't exist at all. One man's colourful street life is some other woman's bitter livelihood.

This all came back to me the other day, as I squatted in Neal Street, Covent Garden, watching Mark sell The Big Issue. I'd come to have a look-see at a vendor, so I could write a piece to celebrate the Big Issue Foundation's 15th year of helping the homeless to help themselves. Talking to Mark, and to Steve, who'd got back on his feet and off the street selling the Issue, and was now a supervisor, I found myself feeling oddly at home. I put my sugared bun and tea on the ground beside me. I rolled a cigarette. I chatted. From this static position, the chintzy thoroughfare, with its useless boutiques, swam into focus.

The girl in the white knee boots outside Accessorize; the BT engineer combing the great fleece of wiring he'd yanked from its cabinet; even the mounted cops clip-clop-plopping over the cobbles on their horses - all of them were now inside with me, forced into uneasy propinquity. Once you're on the street there are no strangers, only friends you'd like to reject and abusive members of an ever-fissioning family. I can't think it any coincidence that after the harrowing business of carving up the scrag-end of my first marriage, I left Somerset House (which was where the Family Registry was then located), staggered across Waterloo Bridge, and ended up drinking in the Bull Ring with a rough-sleeping Big Issue vendor called Howie.

Howie had his own take on the interiority of the outside. While his fellow drinkers finished their bottles and cans then threw them to one side, Howie collected both his own and everyone else's. He was more proud of his immediate environment than most householders, and showed me a wheelie bin full of empties he'd collected. "The only problem is," he averred, "how the fuck do I get it to the bottle bank?" Now the Bull Ring is long gone, and its concrete aorta has been plugged by the monstrous valve of the Imax Cinema. But on chilly nights I still think of Howie, shuffling through the pissy tunnels, searching for somewhere to perform his civic duty.

My times on the street have lasted at most hours, but it's significant that they've occurred when I've been either recoiling from institutions, or facing the dissolution of relationships. Of course, it's the same for those who end up with the thoroughfare as their living room - but much, much more so. The vast majority of homeless were either "in care" or are ex-servicemen; for them the institutional has annulled their ability - if it ever existed at all - to be cosy. They've spent their lives outside already, so one more sojourn in a public space, where the only human comfort is for hire, has - what the statisticians call - a "creeping normalcy" about it. E