Tag Archives: Christmas

A Christmas made visible (altruism is dead, long live reciprocity -) a second experience of ‘Caring at Christmas’

As with many things (a song, a poem, a sample of data, a performance) a blog post can represent a glimpse, a single account and perspective of a specific moment in time. I wrote about my first experience of Caring at Christmas in 2011 having volunteered the previous year.  Despite having enjoyed my time, I left feeling cynical. I completed only three shifts but the memories of the people I encountered stayed with me, as did the knowledge that their lives would not change radically. It seemed the shelter provided an all too temporary respite from the realities of an often harsh everyday existence. This I now understand is a common ‘first timers’ reaction, referred to fondly as ‘The Florence Nightingale effect’.  Whilst I never ever set out to assist with any kind of life ‘intervention’ I left feeling frustrated at the ways of the world, at the cycle of poverty, crime, addiction, prostitution that it was possible to get stuck in, at the ‘system’ which was struggling to support people with complex needs and which often could not, and also particularly with cases of addiction, the inevitable inability of many people to help themselves.

Yet, in spite of this, this December I was back at the Shelter and in it for the long haul. So what was different? Well my circumstances for one. Due to a change of career direction I found myself, to begin with, with a little time on my hands. This year it wasn’t possible to make the long rail journeys to visit family scattered around the UK. Whilst I probably I could have blagged a place somewhere local for dinner on the 25th, as I am sure many others could testify there are few things to make you feel  more like an alien appendage than being tagged onto someone else’s family dinner on Christmas day. I’d been keen to get more experience working directly in frontline positions with people and I felt time at the Shelter would provide this.  I wasn’t done with this topic of volunteering and my ongoing quest to understand if altruism really existed, but mostly I was just cheesed off with the ‘same old, same old’ engine of (often conspicuous) consumption Christmas had become.  I can’t say I’d previously given religion that much thought (and caring at Christmas is not a religious organisation) but I’m pretty convinced had Jesus ever had the misfortune of witnessing two grown women locking horns like stags in a trolly fight over the last figgy pudding in Asda, it’s fair to say our bearded friend he would be ‘turning in his cave’.

Having had some experience of Caring at Christmas my expectations of the overall impact I might have on the lives of guests were lower, but perhaps more significantly I’d been forced to admit, that this year as a volunteer, I needed the Shelter as much as the Shelter needed me. This year I completed just under 12 shifts. From set up on Christmas eve I was there until we said goodbye when the shelter closed on New Years day.  My task was the same.. a ‘general’ assistant – which meant working in the day room alongside the guests – companionship, tea drinking, talking and listening, toilet duty, some housekeeping tasks and ‘mucking’ in with anything else that was needed.

The stories I heard and sometimes the scenes I witnessed could often be challenging… serious abuse, rape, extreme self harm, multiple addiction  (in some cases) but also something as simple as needing company, a joke and a nice cup of tea at an often emotionally testing time of year.

I could relay their stories to you, as I did in my last blog post, but truth be told.. this year I decided they are not mine to tell.  From my experience I can say however that the terms: homeless, vulnerable, mentally ill, in crisis, addicted, psychotic (I could go on) often melt quickly into insignificance when you realise the person you are speaking despite their circumstances is just like you.

The shelter gave me an opportunity to apply my clown training in a way that I had not anticipated. I didn’t perform, mime or roll about with a red nose on, but the skills I learnt through clown enabled me to engage with guests at the shelter.  To be able to see the humanity beneath behaviour and context is vital and clown training helped me to do this. A guest told me that life on the street is ruled by the ‘laws of the jungle’ and it was perhaps this primal basis of clown communication which often helped me engage with people comfortably in a way that I couldn’t have done before.  Additionally the potential of the creative arts was emphasised as I was amazed at how a painting, drawing and often rap or poem could have such power as a tool of expression, understanding and source of discussion and meaning.

I put in some hours this year, and I also learnt the need for ‘care of the self’ in an often emotionally demanding role. I managed effectively and only really began to feel emotional towards the end during the last few shifts. As I had previously questioned the impact of the shelter years before, I was humbled when a guest shared his view with me. Yes, he said, the shelter was temporary, but for those few days it was often the only time of the year that the guests knew where they would sleep, were guaranteed a hot meal and most significantly, he said tearfully, a safe space.  As a performer I know that the need for a ‘safe space’ in order to create is vital. Whilst the context was radically different I could suddenly comprehend the daily roulette wheel that life on the street could be and that this short term provision over Christmas was vitally important and meaningful to our guests, particularly when other support services were shut.

My experience at the shelter gave me so much this year. It reminded me of the necessity and experience of everyday and simple work, gratitude, friendship, teamwork, companionship, and acceptance. Whilst all of the 300+ volunteers each had their own reason for being at the shelter this Christmas I learnt the potential of goodwill en masse from people of varying and also no religion. In short, I discovered that those long forgotten perhaps more traditional principles of Christmas were still very much alive, when I gave Cribbs Causeway and the EastEnders Christmas omnibus a miss and actually bothered to go out and look for them.

I also learnt more about the organisation – how it acts as kind of broker for other charities, how none of the donations received are wasted and are passed on. I found ways to continue to help beyond the Christmas period both with ‘Caring at Christmas’ and associated new charity ‘Safe Stay Bristol’ – a sudden homelessness intervention scheme for 16-25 year olds.

My choice to volunteer with the homeless at Christmas could be met by others with bafflement around my own motivations or expectations, and its true not everyone could see the value in such an activity. So I will admit now that its not altruism, in fact I am a very, very selfish person. I volunteered because amongst the communitas and Christmas spirit, this experience allowed me to see further potential in my own skills and abilities, and gain confidence in their application.  It wasn’t always easy, and I accepted that my impact on the lives of the guests is unlikely to engender any measurable or significant change. However if I have learnt anything from the guests I’ve met its the ongoing daily need for hope, companionship and laughter in the face of great adversity.

The real truth is that I had a choice to be there, in that moment, and hold the hand of a rape victim while she recovered from her ordeal… or not… and this time I chose to be there regardless of the outcome, in the knowledge that she was holding my hand too.


next Christmas,

you’ll know where to find me.

Caring at Christmas is a registered charity that helps homeless people at Christmas and throughout the year

Please visit the website above for further information about the organisation and volunteering. I’ll also be running the Bristol 10K in May so keep your eyes peeled for my Justgiving page coming soon – Happy New Year!

The Bullet & The Base Trombone/ The Morpeth Carol at Bristol Ferment

Suddenly its winter and I realise that I still have a lot of performances from this year to write up. It was the promise of  http://sleepdogs.org/  current production of The Morpeth Carol (Bristol Old Vic showing until the 17th of December)  that prompted me to remember the jungles and the battlefields of  the WIP showing of The Bullet and the Base Trombone  back in July as part of Bristol Ferment. The months have flown, although the memory of the performance is still clear in my head and I’ve been contemplating it for quite some time.  It was a lesson in the power of sound.. (so much so that I was wandering around rock pools in Wales with a Dictaphone last summer) but most significantly in the power of  imagination.

As usual I try and approach these things with an open mind – and I’ve given up trying to predict what could possibly be presented during this type of theatre and just try and go with whatever it is.  Suffice to say that the Bullet and the Base Trombone was my first sound based performance so I was excited in discovering what that actually meant.

As the performance began I am the first to admit that I was completely confused as to how much of this was actually real – I mean it sounded so real. And the story well – these things do happen don’t they? There are lands that colonist conquered with their silly wigs and western ideologies, and well we see conflict on the news today all the time, right?

The sparcity of the stage made the experience more atmospheric. It was like my mind had room to construct the scene (although I did spend the first five minutes staring at the equipment compulsively thinking ‘I wonder what that button does?)   A story told by a man alone on a stage surrounded by people.  The story of an orchestra or those behind the music.

Can you see them standing there?

The man told us of music. Of the construction of music. Of how the notes were geographical, like islands in his mind. I don’t read music. But I can see the islands too.

The man told us of an orchestra. Of the people and the lives behind the music. And there was a jungle and a bird. A beautiful beautiful bird that sang so hauntingly and sadly.   A jungle with people who knew their environment so well. The orchestra were on a mission – to play music all around the world – but the world they stumbled into was one devoid of music and full of conflict. People with guns. No birds sang here. I don’t remember what happened really. How the players strayed so close to the conflict zone, how they were discovered, how the girl with the cello was held at gun point. ‘Play’ the child had said to her. The children watched and listened fascinated– until eventually as they grew bored she was shot in the ankle and left for dead. Maybe the bird sang again after that, maybe the women crawled to shelter, maybe some of the orchestra were reunited… but what of the others?

‘That’s all I’ve got folks’ said the man, swiftly disappearing into the shadows.


We sat for a moment. Quietly stunned.

Well. After that ferment experience I was properly self-prepped for the potential of my own internal response to another sound based performance.  What the previous show had taught me is to listen, but perhaps importantly that I could still apply my imagination.  I’m not sure grown ups do this very often. Children, yes, but grown ups? What did I imagine?

  • I’d imagine I can deliver that for you on time.
  • I’d imagine you’ll receive the invoice in a week or so.
  • I’d imagine the computer will be fixed soon.
  • I’d imagine that all those pizza delivery leaflets will eventually block the access to my front door

The Morpeth Carol was a different kind of story… but one where I still could exercise my imagination.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin..

A small intimate studio. Anybody fancy a Christmas cuddle? Five performers, five scripts, five desk lamps. Some crunchy snow-gravel.

So. Er.. Are they just going to read it then?

Once again I soon learnt that taking away the traditional trappings of the theatre suddenly made my ears work better.  Sometimes I get a flinching moment of anxiety… but where is all the stuff? You mean it’s just us and them? So we listened…. And we looked…. And they looked back.

It was like a bedtime story – well one where all the reindeers died anyhow. A Northern town, a small child who saw everything, a grown child, a man as old as life itself. A drunk mother, a father that wasn’t much good at anything. I squirmed at the violent bits. Felt that apathy of those working in retail. The universe worked in unequal and inexplicable ways, but as the old man once said – the specific workings of the universe were not really that important.

Snow crunched, the wind howled, sirens wailed. The story unfolded rapidly and all drawing toward an inevitable Christmas conclusion….

Or was it?

A poignant, sincerely performed and clever production subtly questioning the meanings of Christmas, tradition, class, race, family and gifts.

Shame on me for being such a bloody humbug this year.

Sleepdogs and Bristol Ferment present The Morpeth Carol  which runs at Bristol Old Vic Theatre until December the 17th 2011.

Tales of Christmas past #1 The Invisible Christmas

The building looked different to how I’d seen it previously.. that is before the guests had arrived.  The hall was large and it was the only area that both guests and volunteers had access to. In the corner a TV blared. Groups of tables and chairs were set out, next to areas for clothing distribution and a hatch were guests were given hot drinks and food.  Bowls of crisps, sweets and biscuits were everywhere. This felt slightly odd.  Creating a party atmosphere was perhaps well intended but seemed a little disingenuous to the reality of the circumstances.

Regardless of the training sessions I’d attended I felt apprehension.  The situation, we had been warned, could be unpredictable.  Violence sometimes occurred but this was usually outside and between guests. The biggest threat was overdose. The year before a guest had died at the shelter on New Years Eve. Although beds were checked every 15 mins the wheezing ‘or death rattle’ had not been identified in time.  Most guests I’d been told, had been philosophical about this. ‘He had died with a warm meal inside him in a safe bed surrounded by his mates’.  ‘God bless’ they wrote in the art workshop the next day.

I was working front of house – so this meant companionship, tea fetching and board games although my first official task was toilet duty.  Drugs and alcohol were not permitted but addiction, I witnessed, was a relentless master.  Toilet checks were performed under the neon lights every 15 minutes for substance use, overdose or other illicit activity. There was no real bother on any of my shifts.

The volunteers were plenty. They outnumbered the guests on some evenings and encompassed a wide range of people. Food was donated generously, was in excess at times and of top quality. Some of Bristol’s best chefs were doing shifts in the kitchen. Three meals a day were given out, sweets crisps and biscuits in-between and the shelter tried to ensure that no one was turned away from the 50 beds available. Most guests moved in and stayed for the two week Christmas period. This was usually the most stable place they had been for the entire year normally moving on every night.

The guests were of all ages, and came from all walks of life. Some were local residents who were alone at Christmas and wanted company.  Some were ‘hidden homeless’ – who survived by kipping on mates sofas and gave their usual hosts a break over the festive period.  Most though were homeless the year through and stuck in unbreakable cycles of addiction, unemployment, mental health illness and prostitution.

It was a Christmas bubble. We all knew that the situation wasn’t real. That nothing would change. But for those two weeks of the year, life was made more bearable for the guests.  Jokes were exchanged, games were lost and won.  Second hand clothes were traded.  Tea was drunk and songs were sung.

It was difficult to see how some of the guests had ended up there.  Clever, funny, personable, educated.  Others illustrated the miserable and mostly hopeless reality of those living in the grip of addiction.  Missing person cards were handed out to us at the beginning of the shift in the hope that amongst the guests a specific friend or loved one could be identified. Occasionally people were recognised, but often they didn’t want to be found ‘Give them the message I’m alrite’  They would say.

Nicholas was seventeen. He had problems with his family and at school and had been crashing on mate’s sofas for over a year.  The first thing I noticed about him was how clever he was. If he was engaged in something he was really bright. He would win at nearly all the games he played and would teach others. He was extremely patient at my totally inability to pick up a lot of the games we played.   Nicholas didn’t have an obvious class A or alcohol addiction (although I’m not medically qualified to make any kind of assessment especially given it was only three shifts I volunteered). He talked about wanting to go to college and said he spent most of his time smoking weed.  I saw so much potential there.  Don’t drop anchor here, I thought.

Edward and Rosa seemed to be a couple –  both alcoholics. They were in their forties would have once been well dressed had it not been for the dirt and tatter of their clothes.  I found them the most difficult to sit with.  He would insult her constantly, both to her face in front of other people. A consistent barrage of verbal abuse.  She had swollen ulcers on her hands and feet – infected track marks. She seemed indifferent to the constant degradation.

Alan scared me. He was very tall, he may have been in the forces once. He observed the room and stood apart from everyone. He was always watching. Always looking for an opportunity, assessing the power relationships and dynamics in the room.  Street life teaches you a different set of survival skills. There was something intimidating which overwhelmed me yet in a flash it was gone and he was crying like a baby.

Ricardo was from Brazil. I spent my first evening almost exclusively with him.  He was in his twenties. He was a rent boy – and extremely distressed.  I held his hands as he cried for hours. He told me stories of life on the streets, of rape. Of concerns over HIV and the stigma amongst homeless communities about homosexuality.  He had been a dancer. He delighted at dressing up and ransacked the clothing piles for fuchsia fur coats and sequin handbags which quickly got traded for cigarettes and other favours.  The only thing I could do was be with him and see him and hear him for who he was and what he had been through.. He cried so many tears that night.  I really felt that I had helped.  The next day I was happy to see him again and bounced over to catch up on how he was doing. He didn’t remember me.

It was a year ago I volunteered.  I know I helped but ultimately found it hard to feel good about my contribution. The shelter was over staffed – some shifts even had waiting lists. Food flowed as did the goodwill to almost obscene amounts…what a lot of Christmas spirit…  But where are we the rest of the year I wondered? The shelter struggles to find staff outside of Christmas.  Sure. A brief respite from the trauma and danger of life on the street, but the ‘guests’ in reality were lost.   This was a bitter pill to swallow.  The experience stayed with me but it was a good lesson.  Anyone can be homeless. Anyone can be the victim of abuse or suffer mental illness or become an addict. And it happens all year round.  I decided that it’s more important to contribute in a way which were sustainable and longer term. But I guess most of us didn’t get around to being that altruistic yet.

There are other stories from the shelter of course, but its Christmas and there is shopping to be done and I guess you won’t have much time to read them all.. I’m lucky that I get to choose not to be at the shelter this year. I’ll never forget my experience. I’d like to think that the same ‘guests’ will make it through to 2012 but then ….I will never know.

Copyright © Franko B 2011

Photo taken by artist Franko B – the rest of the collection is well worth seeing: